Sometimes it’s just the most everyday things that trigger a memory, an experience, however deeply it’s buried. For Sally Hawkins’ Jane in Eternal Beauty, it’s the sound of a telephone ringing and it takes her back to one of the most painful experiences of her life. But there is a way to stop it …
In Craig Roberts’ sophomore feature as director, she plays a solitary woman suffering from schizophrenia. It’s a constant struggle, sometimes made worse by living alone in a small flat, sometimes made worse by her dysfunctional family. Her mother (Penelope Wilton) is opinionated and distant, dominating her husband (Robert Pugh), while younger sister Nicola (Billie Piper) is spoilt and manipulative. Only her other sister Alice (Alice Lowe) offers her some compassion, even though she finds it hard, and it’s only when Jane meets eccentric musician Mike (David Thewlis) that she feels she’s understood. Her family, however, are concerned about their relationship, and that causes old family grudges and conflicts to rise to the surface yet again.
At a time when mental health issues are increasingly to the fore, Eternal Beauty shines a piercing light on the artifices that go with being “normal”, something that Jane herself describes as “boring”. Sister Alice is with her there, advising her young son that “You don’t want to be normal. It’s hard work.” But it’s just as hard being an outsider like Jane in a society where personal image and generally fitting in with convention is the order of the day. The film moves between two time frames, slipping in and out of Jane’s current life and her late-teenage years with her two sisters, but it’s all seen through her eyes. And, as her mental health changes, mainly due to her medication (which helps subdue those ringing telephones), everything around her and in her mind moves backwards and forwards: the colour palette moves from light to dark, the décor of her flat shifts from shabby to neat and bright.
At the centre of it all is Hawkins, delivering a breath taking performance of such emotional and physical fragility that she could be snap at any second. She wouldn’t stand a chance against the slightest breath of wind. But there’s a strength inside her too, one that means she still has hope, still has a future. Morfydd Clark, soon to be seen in Saint Maud, is almost her equal as her teenage self, vulnerable and desperate for the slightest taste of elusive happiness. And, with a supporting cast chosen to perfection, the result is closer to an ensemble piece than might initially be apparent.
For all the sadness at its heart, Eternal Beauty has an unexpected humour, sometimes dark, sometimes surreal, so there are times when it’s impossible not to raise a smile. Most of it comes from Hawkins, harking back to her work for Mike Leigh in Happy Go Lucky, but the tone is decidedly different. Roberts’ second feature is deeply impressive, creating a complex but compelling world in an uncompromising way. That makes Eternal Beauty a challenging watch, but a deeply rewarding one.
Drama | Cert: 15 | Bulldog Film Distribution | In cinemas and on demand, 2 October 2020 | Dir. Craig Roberts | Sally Hawkins, David Thewlis, Billie Piper, Penelope Wilton, Alice Lowe, Robert Pugh.