The Eternal Daughter review: Tilda Swinton faces her family’s past

Tilda Swinton in The Eternal Daughter, directed by Joanna Hogg
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Director Joanna Hogg’s follow-up to The Souvenir duology, The Eternal Daughter, is a Gothic drama where Tilda Swinton unearths family secrets. 

Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter begins in a perfectly charming fashion. It displays the creepy, twisted trees of the English countryside as a taxi drives down a narrow country lane shrouded in thick fog. Inside it are Julie (Tilda Swinton) and her elderly mother Rosalind (also Swinton), who are travelling to Rosalind’s old family home – now a hotel. Julie’s a filmmaker undertaking the trip to write a screenplay about her and her mother’s relationship, and being in the house (which is rumoured to be haunted) brings back memories good and bad for Rosalind.

In addition to the countryside location and thick fog that permeates the entire film, there’s also noticeable grain in the picture. Add this to the setting of a grand old house, and The Eternal Daughter resembles in many ways an old television drama. It brings with it a kind of nostalgia, like turning on an old episode of Miss Marple, but that’s the only comfort it provides. After that, it plays out like a haunted house film, as well as being a deep contemplation on the power of memory and complex parent/child relationships.

Swinton does an excellent job of playing the two roles, although neither feel that interesting. Julie pesters the hotel staff and treats every conversation with her mother as research rather than an opportunity for real human connection. Rosalind is made interesting through the tidbits of information she lets slip throughout the runtime, recalling old memories and revealing family secrets previously unknown to Julie. Her dialogue is often faltering and stilted, however, and it feels sometimes that Swinton spends most of the movie having a long and awkward conversation with herself. She does her best with the script she’s been provided though.

As a haunted house film, The Eternal Daughter is often thoroughly enjoyable. Swinton (as Julie) wakes to the typical night time noises – the unexplained creaks and groans that old houses make. It’s incredibly atmospheric even then, let alone when she begins to wander the corridors and winding staircases with only the light from her phone showing her the way. The only thing missing is a long white nightgown and an oil lamp. The lighting makes the most of the houses’ long shadows, and accentuates them with just a tiny bit of light, often in hues of green, blue or red, that serve to heighten the tension.

As the film continues, however, these sequences get rather repetitive and nothing of consequence really happens. I often found myself  looking around in the backgrounds of shots, searching for clues as to what was really going on and hoping for something subtly creepy to enhance the haunted house narrative, but it never came. Granted, it seems the haunting is meant to be more figurative than literal, but it would be good to see more horror imagery incorporated into this – especially considering the Gothic themes and setting. In this film, it’s not the house that’s truly haunted, but the people residing there. Rosalind is bothered by old memories that the rooms cause to resurface.

We spend the film’s runtime attempting to figure out what’s really happening in the house, as well as trying to unpick the mystery of Julie’s complex relationship with her mother. This would be an interesting and worthwhile pursuit if not for two important factors. Firstly, it becomes easy to guess what’s really going on between Swinton’s two characters. Secondly, the pacing is deliberately glacial and the interesting information is revealed far too slowly to maintain much interest. The Eternal Daughter can be incredibly atmospheric, but it can’t survive on atmosphere alone; the pacing in particular is what makes this a challenging watch. There’s a good story buried in this film, but it could have been told a little speedier (and it’s only 96 minutes to begin with).

Ultimately, for this writer, Joanna Hogg’s latest project is visually charming and atmospheric, but the narrative feels far too slight.

The Eternal Daughter is out in UK cinemas from 24th November.

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