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17 November 2023

The Eternal Daughter is a haunting without ghosts

A protean Tilda Swinton completely inhabits the roles of both mother and daughter.

By David Sexton

There are surprisingly few great films and stories about being haunted. Most either veer into horror or lapse into absurdity. The Eternal Daughter, the sixth feature by Joanna Hogg, though, belongs in the company of the classics: the tales of MR James, or Kipling’s grievous story (specifically cited in this film) They, about a house haunted by the ghosts of dead children that can only be seen by those who have lost one of their own.

The Eternal Daughter is loosely a sequel to Hogg’s previous two films: her masterpiece The Souvenir of 2019, about her seduction as a young film student by a charismatic fraud, and its successor The Souvenir: Part II, about her emergence from that abuse into finding her voice, which I found less compelling. In those films Honor Swinton Byrne, the daughter of Hogg’s lifelong friend Tilda Swinton, played Julie Hart, effectively the young Joanna Hogg, while Tilda Swinton herself played her courtly, aristocratic mother, Rosalind.

The Eternal Daughter opens in darkness and mist, as a cab drives through wintry country lanes to the sound of the creepy, brooding fugue of the “Andante tranquillo” of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Inside are two women, and Tilda Swinton plays them both: Julie, now a middle-aged film-maker, and her dozing, elderly mother, Rosalind, again. They’re going to stay in a country house hotel in north Wales, Moel Famau (Mother Mountain) – actually, Soughton Hall in Flintshire, near Chester, a listed building now mainly used as a wedding venue. It is looming, angular, ill-lit and disturbingly baronial within.

A churlish receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davis) has trouble finding their reservation, even though it seems there may be nobody else staying. When they get to their shared room, with its throne-like single beds, it becomes clear that this house was once Rosalind’s childhood home – “I remember that ceiling, I think I was in that bed, my sister in this” – and it is full of memories for her, some good but others too painful to recall in full. The pair are there to celebrate Rosalind’s birthday but Julie also has a project to make a film about her mother’s life and their relationship, surreptitiously turning on the voice recorder on her phone whenever she begins to reminisce. Although she feels guilty about such trespassing, perhaps the result is the very film we are seeing?

This double act is filmed without trickery: no body doubles or green screens. We soon realise that we do not see mother and daughter in the same frame, yet their interaction is intense. (It appears the scenes, with semi-improvised dialogue as usual in Hogg’s work, were acted between Hogg, off-camera, and Swinton, before they switched characters for subsequent takes.) Swinton completely inhabits both performances: positively gamine with cropped red hair and a husky voice as Julie; stiff, bleached and skeletal as Rosalind, cut glass in accent, a woman of her era, barely able to articulate her true feelings. “Don’t fuss,” is all she can say when in trouble.

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Tilda Swinton has played multiple roles in the same film often enough in the past (identical twins in Hail, Caesar! and Okja, three distinct roles in Suspiria). She has a shape-shifting ability that’s – rightly, I guess – hard to define: androgynous it’s often been said; chameleon, too, or perhaps protean, actively changing rather than responding to the environment – would be the apter term? Her face is at once always distinctive and yet somehow almost unformed, even weak, transfigurable. And those qualities are essential here. The film would never have worked in the same way with separate actors in the roles, apparently Hogg’s initial plan.

The Eternal Daughter is both otherworldly – the house is a maze, full of strange sounds, peculiarly dark (Hogg is scared of the dark, evidently) – and intently focused on psychological realities. It’s about the way that we all become children again when with our parents, whatever our age – more specifically, about the way that mothers and daughters see themselves in each other and do not ever quite know where they begin or end. Such transference is natural, not fantastic, alas.

And perhaps the childless especially remain in some irreparable way forever children themselves. Hogg’s terrific first film, Unrelated, made when she was 47, was about a woman facing up to not having a child of her own in a family setting and it is a subject vehemently returned to here as well.

Rosalind does manage to acknowledge that Julie’s films are “as time-consuming and energy-consuming as a child might be”. But giving her mother a gruesome birthday dinner in the deserted hotel dining-room, Julie bursts out that she has spent her whole life trying to make her mother happy. “And I have a life of my own. I have a husband who I neglect completely. And I don’t have that much time left! I don’t have a family beyond you. I don’t have any children and I won’t have anybody to fuss over me when I’m your age.” There comes no reply. She’s being ghosted. And that’s haunting.

The Eternal Daughter is in cinemas on 24 November

[See also: Saltburn is a class satire without bite]

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