Shot in secret during the pandemic, Joanna Hogg’s wintry ghost story inches, wraithlike, across the screen – a slow glide through a spooky Welsh country house that takes its time to deliver a hefty emotional payoff. Even by the writer-director’s standards of naturalistic, middle-class restraint, it’s a ruminative experience that borders on slow-going. But The Eternal Daughter is also an ode to mothers and daughters that will leave a few teary messes in the stalls, and it’s beautifully acted by Tilda Swinton in not one, but two roles.
The essence of the film is a kind of slow dance between elderly mother Rosalind (Swinton) and her middle-aged filmmaker daughter Julie (also Swinton, minus the ageing prosthetics) in the remote pile that was once childhood home for the former. Now it’s a rural hotel staffed almost single-handedly by Carly-Sophia Davies’s magnificently pass-agg receptionist. The ‘reserved’ sign on the pair’s breakfast table doesn’t seem strictly necessary: in the spirit of all good ghost stories, the place has no other guests.
Rosalind’s trusty spaniel, Louis, is along for the stay too, and acts as a kind of canine early-warning system, quickly detecting that the near-empty building’s eerie creaks and groans may portend some darker mystery inside its walls.
The eagle-eyed will spot that Rosalind and Julie share character names with The Souvenir’s mother-and-daughter pair. Are they the same people years later? There’s certainly the same preoccupations at play here: how art – cinema, specifically, but storytelling more generally – is naturally exploitative of other people’s lives, and how blurry those boundaries can be.
It’s not Hogg’s most substantial work to date, but it might just be her most personal
A sense of creeping unease builds as Julie taps her mum for childhood memories, secretly recording them with a view to bundling them into the film script she’s struggling to write. But the past here isn’t something tame or nostalgia-worthy, and memories have sharp edges. Shrouded in mist and echoing with creepy noises, the house becomes a vivid representation of those harsh truths.
In two performances filled with nuance, Swinton brings it all to vivid life. It’s a formidable task to act out this kind of material without a scene partner, but it’s not just eyelines that match up here: the actress maps out a deep psychic bond between these two women.
If The Shining has that small subgenre of films about blocked writers holed up in deserted hotels pretty well sewn up, The Eternal Daughter is a well-crafted, ethereal and haunting addition. It’s not Hogg’s most substantial work to date, but it may well be her most personal.
The Eternal Daughter premiered at the Venice Film Festival.