Review: A haunting ghost story in “The Eternal Daughter”

A gentle and mournful spell casts Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter, a ghost story in which memory is manifest – visited, invaded, and eventually made to glow.

The film begins enchantingly with fog drifting through bare branches and a white cab winding its way down a country lane. The gothic vibe is instantly comfortingly familiar. Set entirely in a creaky country mansion, The Eternal Daughter works very consciously within a genre tradition but from a very personal angle.

The Eternal Daughter, which A24 released in theaters and on-demand on Friday, is a coda of sorts to Hogg’s last two films. Most recently, the British filmmaker made the two-parter “The Souvenir”, which meticulously brought to life her own memories of her time as a film student and found a beautiful climax in her self-confident self-realization as a director.

In “The Souvenir,” Honor Swinton played Byrne Hogg’s fictional second-in-command Julie, a young filmmaker, while Tilda Swinton (Byrne’s real-life mother) played her mother. Played by Swinton, Julie is now an accomplished middle-aged filmmaker in The Eternal Daughter. She takes her mother, Rosaline (also played by Swinton), to a Welsh inn where Rosaline took refuge during World War II. In this expanded cinematic universe – the Hoggverse? – even one of The Souvenir’s dogs, a springer spaniel named Louis and Swinton’s real-life pet, reprises his role.

But the many doublings and real mirrors reflected in The Eternal Daughter are part of its enigmatic mystery. Rosaline, whose interactions are limited to conversations with her daughter, not only has something vaguely spooky about it, but the old inn they stay in is strangely empty and quite inhospitable. When they arrive, the gruff front desk manager (Carly-Sophia Davies) can’t find their reservation and reluctantly grants them a room on the second floor despite a wall full of keys.

In this empty mansion, Julie tries to spend some time with her mother and to write something. It doesn’t go as badly as Jack Torrance from The Shining in another labyrinthine remote control. But progress is slow, her sleep disturbed by slamming shutters, and some of the reflections the ride evokes in Rosaline aren’t as warm as Julie expected. Here, she says, she found out that her brother had died in the war. Embarrassed that her trip unearthed her mother’s pain, Julie apologizes profusely.

Her activities are mainly limited to tea in bed, reading and an evening meal. But there are echoes everywhere of something elusive. The unspoken is as dense as the fog. Rosaline carries a bag of “Things to Do,” an indication of unfinished work. Occasionally the restless tension breaks. With no hotel employee to be seen besides the front desk manager, Julie encounters a friendly man (lovely played by Joseph Mydell) at night who is more welcoming. He shares memories of his late wife, who also used to work there. The past, which initially did not want to come to the fore, is becoming more and more present.

“That’s what rooms do,” says Rosaline. “They contain these stories.”

That, too, was part of the belief in “The Souvenir,” which faithfully recreated Hogg’s old apartment. Like those films, The Eternal Daughter is reflexive in construction – a memento about remembering. It’s also an opportunity to marvel once again at Swinton’s ability to take on a role or roles. She engages each character so much that you have to remember that she plays both. If anything, I wish her dialogue went deeper than it does — that the film was also about her memories, not just remembering her. Still, the yawning chasm between mother and daughter, past and present, is part of the film’s seductive nocturnal chill. It’s a fog finally lifted by the warming conviction that trying to bridge the gap is worth the fight.

The Eternal Daughter, an A24 release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for some drug material. Running time: 96 minutes. Three stars out of four.


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