‘The Eternal Daughter’ review: Tilda Swinton shines in Joanna Hogg’s painful, personal drama [A] | Venice Film Festival
Telling someone they are being “very British” is almost never meant as a compliment. The cursed phrase connotes repression, quiet, politeness over honesty, a love of pets, and a primal need for access to a kettle. Each of these is probed by Joanna Hogg in The Eternal Daughter, her latest, thinly veiled autobiographical drama, which stars Tilda Swinton both as conduit Julie and her elderly mother Ros on a break to a place of memories fond and foul. Julie is, not just incidentally, the same name given to Honor Swinton Byrne’s adolescent version of Joanna Hogg in the terrific Souvenir films. It is also not by chance that Hogg has brought herself up to the present day in her personal narrative — and brilliantly told the most heartbreaking tale of the three.
Julie carefully orchestrates her mother’s birthday trip to a stately home-turned-hotel in North Wales once owned by her Aunt Jocelyn. Frail, seventy-something Ros (similarly Julie’s mother’s name in The Souvenir films) reminisces about her family’s evacuation from London during the Second World War. “Did you know a war was going on?”, Julie asks a little flippantly. “Well, Liverpool is close by, and that was bombed”, Ros says. Her older brother Peter was killed over the English Channel, Ros remembers in the room where she was told. Julie records these conversations without her mother’s knowledge. She hopes to make a film about Ros and their relationship, though she confides in hotel manager Bill (Joseph Mydell) her fears that she is “trespassing” on her mother’s life story.
Watching Hogg explore the ethics of the film she has ultimately made could have become tiresome navel-gazing. It isn’t. The mother-daughter bond, quite astoundingly portrayed by Hogg’s longtime muse Swinton, feels almost uncomfortably true at times. Hogg certainly does her part, too, avoiding cliche split-screen shots populated by both Swintons until one important exchange.
This is a central theme of The Eternal Daughter, too. Britishness as a kind of solitude. An unwillingness to share the frame, never mind a secret. The result is maddeningly close to home, if you’re from our doomed islands. Words like “muddle,” “muck,” “beeline,” “fusspot” and “fret” fill Hogg’s script, making Ros and Julie’s series of vibe checks about as realistic as they can possibly be. Nothing is ever amazing or brilliant, either.It is “quite satisfactory”.
Meanwhile Bill’s slow, soulful flute-playing from downstairs shapes the score and provides a soundtrack to Ros’s rueful reminiscences. The kindly manager, himself mourning his wife of many years, plays the kind of music a Baroque composer wrote after the death of his wife. His hotel is Kafkaesque, in the sense no one else is staying there, and the service is terrible. Only four actors, plus beagle Louis, are credited. That’s mostly because Hogg made the film during lockdown; the dramatic effect is strong and positive. The Eternal Daughter might be a somewhat different film if it was made today: a tad less lonesome, perhaps, and certainly filled with more passersby. Hogg’s latest heartbreaker is, nevertheless, quite satisfactory.
This review is from the 2022 Venice Film Festival. A24 will release the film in the U.S.