Eternal Beauty

 

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An ambitious and unusual film which will probably work better for some than for others.

 
Eternal Beauty

Sally Hawkins

 

Craig Roberts is nothing if not audacious. In 2015 having already established himself as a talented actor he made his directorial debut with Just Jim, a film in which he also played the lead role and for which he wrote the screenplay. For his second feature, Eternal Beauty, he does not appear on screen, but once again he is the writer as well as the director and he has chosen material that is far from easy to handle. In both cases the effort put in commands respect, but for me neither film hangs together effectively. In part that may be a matter of personal taste, and I hope that it is since one always wants to encourage a filmmaker who opts for an unconventional and individual approach.

 

I can at least praise the acting in Eternal Beauty, especially the performances of Sally Hawkins and Penelope Wilton. Hawkins plays what is absolutely the central role here, that of Jane who, hearing voices and seeing visions, is a paranoid schizophrenic although that is only named as her precise condition late in the film. We get to meet her family - her sisters Alice (Alice Lowe) and Nicole (Billie Piper) and her parents (Robert Pugh and Penelope Wilton) - but we do so through her eyes since Roberts is aiming to give us not a sympathetic outsider's view but to place the audience inside Jane's head. That's all very well in theory but, while imagined voices are clearly just that, when it comes to what she sees it is increasingly difficult to disentangle what is real from what is imagined (when Jane's mother changes her tone drastically in mid-scene we are left wondering how to take it).

 

It might be expected that flashbacks to earlier days might clarify matters but they tend only to raise more questions. Early on we see her as a bride arriving at the church only to find herself jilted by her betrothed, but we never get any clear details linking that with her subsequent problems. Then there's the feeling that she has of being looked down on by Nicole fostering a distrust that may or may not be justified. It could be that in consequence Jane is simply imagining it when Nicole is seen betraying her with the man, Mike (David Thewlis), who has become her lover. But, for that matter, having encountered Mike when visiting her doctor Jane could even be imagining Mike's role as her lover. Making us share what could be thought of as Jane's confusion instead of drawing us in (as Roberts doubtless intends) keeps us on the outside with the film's use of stylisation only adding to our questioning. For the fact is that adopting such a style can often feel like a filmmaker's indulgence despite the intention behind it.

 

The film's identification with Jane is evidence enough that Roberts seeks to empathise with her situation but, when she drives a car and through her mental distractions causes injury to her passenger (her young nephew played by Spencer Deere), our reaction is that her freedom puts others at risk. Nevertheless, even if the film feels all over the place there is no doubt that Sally Hawkins enters fully into the lead role achieving a tour-de-force in the process, while Penelope Wilton, one of our great older actresses, brings a sense of truth to everything that she does (even if here we are not sure how to interpret the seeming contradictions in the mother's character). In passing, there's an intriguing use of songs in Eternal Beauty including on the soundtrack a real oldie (Ricky Nelson singing ‘I Will Follow You’) and Jane memorably speaking lyrics from ‘I Will Survive’. But for all its daring (and sometimes because of it) the film never cohered in a meaningful way in my eyes. Might it in yours?.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Alice Lowe, Billie Piper, Robert Pugh, Morfydd Clark, Penelope Wilton, David Thewlis, Paul Hilton, Boyd Clack, Elysia Welch, Rita Bernard-Shaw, Tony Leader, Robert Aramayo, Spencer Deere.

 

Dir Craig Roberts, Pro Adrian Bate, Screenplay Craig Roberts, Ph Kit Fraser, Pro Des Tim Dickel, Ed Stephen Haren, Music Michael Price, Costumes Sian Jenkins.

 

Cliff Edge Pictures/BFI/Film Cymru Wales/Wellcome-Bulldog Film Distribution.
94 mins. UK. 2019. Rel: 2 October 2020. Available in cinemas, on Curzon Home Cinema and on BFI Player. Cert. 15.