Two Tildas for the Price of One – The Eternal Daughter

Two years ago, I railed against the wholly unjustified remake of Rebecca, the 1940 gothic mood piece that was Alfred Hitchcock’s only film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It added nothing to the proceedings, wasted talented actors, and apart from the set design offered no new ideas to enhance the original’s tragically unsettling atmosphere. A flock of cheap-looking CGI birds was about the only thing to even pass for homage or acknowledgement to the late master of suspense.

Fast forward to the present, and The Eternal Daughter, the latest from Joanna Hogg (The Souvenir). Telling a more modern and distinct story, the influence of that classic from over 80 years ago is palpable, and at times it feels like a spiritual successor. Rather than just copying Hitchcock’s work, however, Hogg builds upon the visual profile and thematic weight to take those ideas in intriguing new directions while still appearing to show deference to what came before as a means to inform the emotions of each moment. It’s by no means a great film, as there are a good number of elements that are either rushed or left ambiguous for no good reason, but the overall effort is noble, and worthy of your attention.

Much of this comes down to the dual performance of Tilda Swinton, carrying over 90% of the action and dialogue. She plays both Julie Hart and her mother Rosalind. Julie is a filmmaker working on her latest screenplay, and has rented a room at a stately manor in the English countryside that’s been converted into a hotel. This is because Rosalind’s aunt and uncle used to own the place, and she spent a good deal of time there as a child, particularly during World War II to keep her away from the Blitz in London. Julie’s film is meant to explore her relationship with Rosalind, as well as delve into her mother’s memories about the manor itself, which some say is haunted. The visit also coincides with Rosalind’s birthday, so Julie wishes to celebrate with her mom at her old home.

Swinton’s work here is tremendous, taking on two completely juxtaposed roles that feed into one another. Julie is assertive and sometimes curt, while Rosalind is passive to the point of almost never making a decision for herself, constantly throwing any choice back to Julie because she doesn’t want to be a bother. Julie is always trying to find time to get her work done and can’t sleep, and Rosalind is content to lie about and takes sleeping pills that knock her out fairly quickly. Julie visits several locations around the manor and the grounds, but Rosalind stays almost exclusively in their shared room. Julie asks questions, Rosalind shares thoughts. Kudos should go to the hair and makeup department as well, as the job done to age up Swinton for Rosalind’s scenes looks very natural and believable. It really sells the idea that the characters are mother and daughter. Honestly the only knock I have is on the few times when Swinton cries. She’s one of the best actresses in the world, and has taken on a ton of roles that call for strength and resolve, using her steely gaze to great effect. But watching her weep is not something you see her do that often, and for good reason. It’s so affected and tacked on as to become objectively funny, robbing the moment of any emotional resonance every time she does it. For the vast majority of her screen time here, she’s brilliant, but her sobbing had me openly giggling.

The tone of the film is set in two major ways, one that I think works very well, while the other comes up a bit short. On the one hand, Hogg plays with the idea of isolation really well. Apart from Julie and Rosalind (and their super cute dog, Louis), there are only two other people in the whole establishment, a 20-something receptionist/waitress played by Carly-Sophia Davies and a groundskeeper/doorman named Bill played by Joseph Mydell. The unnamed desk clerk is sarcastic, dismissive, and a touch standoffish, while Bill is warm and empathetic, having recently lost his wife. As such, both characters serve as analogs to each of Swinton’s roles, reinforcing the idea that there are no other distinct personalities around. This lack of human contact is enhanced by the rote nature of the women’s stay, in that by day the receptionist tries to rush them through meals and attends to minor requests like they’re cumbersome chores, and by night she gets picked up by a car (presumably driven by a date/boyfriend) that loudly blasts techno music while Bill patrols and occasionally lends a caring ear when Julie is stressed out. Once those brief interactions are over, Julie walks the dog and then tries to sleep, but is unable to thanks to noises she can’t drown out and the creeping sensation that she’s being watched.

This is some really good stuff, and it echoes the moodiness of Rebecca without being derivative. In that story (and of course Daphne du Maurier’s original novel), only the new Mrs. de Winter is seen, but due to the vastness of the Manderley estate and the cruel wistfulness of Mrs. Danvers for the late Rebecca, Mrs. de Winter’s loneliness and insecurities become magnified and exploited within the context of Rebecca’s memory. Here, we get the old and new forms of the main woman together through Julie and Rosalind, but the core solitude is still there, as one tries to a frustrating degree to live in the present while the other is a creature almost entirely of the past, without anyone around who can help reconcile the emotional and mental conflict.

Where the atmosphere falls apart is in the more obvious ways Hogg tries to establish things. Howling winds and dense fog bombard nearly every scene. The ambient score plays like a parody of The Godfather and The Lord of the Rings, drowning out any subtle sound profile while also coming off as artificially spooky. Julie can’t have a proper phone call because the signal keeps cutting out. These bits are far too trite and cute to really get anything across other than the wrong kind of off-putting, and they intrude on the stronger stuff way too often.

There are other flaws along the way as well, mostly things that are never adequately explained, even within the context of the film’s resolution. At the beginning, the receptionist and Julie have a brief argument about what room she’s booked, with Davies eventually conceding that it’ll be day-to-day whether Julie gets to keep the room she wants (which may not even be the right one, given her reaction when she looks out a window and down to an outdoor annex tent, also not explained), but we can clearly see (and Julie even points out) that every room key seems to be available and there are no other guests in the place, so where’s the difficulty? Along those lines, where does the receptionist go every night, and why? We see her leave, and even have a row with the driver, but that dynamic is never once explored, so why draw attention to it? There’s also a scene where Louis escapes the room and goes for a wander because someone opens the door while Julie’s in the bathroom and Rosalind’s asleep. Who opened it, or how and when the dog gets back we never learn, only that he does eventually show back up in the room after a lengthy search. All of these are stock scenes designed to build tension, but without any reasonable exposition or context, they’re just inflating the runtime, and they don’t make a lick of sense.

But the biggest fault the movie has is with the presentation of Swinton’s two roles. There are only two scenes where Julie and Rosalind are in the frame together. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially since this was shot on actual film (probably why Martin Scorsese has an Executive Producer credit), which means editing both Tildas into one scene becomes that much more difficult. But where the illusion really falters is that in these sequences where the two characters are very much together despite both being played by the same actress, it feels like they don’t occupy the same physical space. There are myriad conversations between Julie and Rosalind where every shot change comes off like we’re watching two completely different movies being spliced together. Lighting designs change, the set looks different because they’re always positioned in parts of the room with different wall decorations, and sometimes it even appears that the blocking and continuity are off. It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so obvious what Hogg was trying to set up. And even if there was a degree of mystery to it, the use of mirrors and reflections in almost half the shots ensures that there’s no doubt where things are headed.

That’s where the overall project stops just short of greatness for me. Tilda Swinton does a wonderful job playing two parts, there are some really strong moments of gothic melancholy, and the dog is objectively adorable (except when Swinton occasionally whimpers in the exact same tone and timbre). The problem is that for all the haunting mood and atmosphere that Hogg wants to build, it ends up detracting from the core of the story because it simultaneously leaves too much to your imagination and not enough. Key questions that can have simple answers are left hanging, while the mystery of the central dynamic is spelled out pretty blatantly long before it’s actually revealed.

Still, for what it is, this is an intriguing, ambitious film. There are some solid ideas at play, even the ones that don’t really work out, and that’s encouraging enough in certain situations. In an age where even the greatest films of all time get lazy remakes, it’s refreshing to see a genuine attempt to evolve classic ideas rather than simply profit off of them. Even in the moments where The Eternal Daughter comes up short, I’d rather watch it 20 more times than be subjected to another cheap retread even once.

Grade: B-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite Tilda Swinton role? Can we put a moratorium on any movie using the “Happy Birthday” song for the next 10 years or so? Let me know!

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