The Eternal Daughter Review: Is Tilda Swinton Seeing Ghosts?

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Rating: 3 out of 5.

Acclaimed filmmaker Joanna Hogg returns with love letter to old ghost stories, The Eternal Daughter

The Eternal Daughter is the latest feature from acclaimed British filmmaker Joanna Hogg, following on from her colossal indie hits The Souvenir Part 1 & 2 in 2019. Those films were semi-autobiographical, drawing on Hogg’s own experiences as a filmmaker in a honey toned youth. The Eternal Daughter also feels like it could be autobiographical but is rather looking forward to a possible future.

Hogg reunites with her previous star Tilda Swinton and the piece is entirely driven her, the sole actor for much of the film. Swinton plays two roles, often acting opposite herself as both middle aged daughter Julie and elderly mother Rosalind via the use of aging prosthetics. Swinton is no stranger to aging up considerably for roles, having previously done it in both the Grand Budapest Hotel and Suspiria – a film where she again played dual roles.

Julie is a filmmaker trying to put together the idea for her next project. She has taken her mother Rosalind away for a week’s holiday at a grand country house hotel. Rosalind had lived at the house in her youth when she was evacuated there during the Blitz. Julie hopes to make a film based around her relationship with her mother and Rosalind’s memories of the house, so is making recordings of their conversations and going through old family history.

But Julie can’t settle down to work. After being told that the house is rumoured to be haunted, she is plagued by creepy sounds during the night and blurry apparitions in windows. What is more she learns that the house is the home of several painful memories for Rosalind, and she does not seem happy to be there.

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Tilda Swinton as Julie in The Eternal Daughter
Tilda Swinton as Julie in The Eternal Daughter

This gently spooky ghost story is a clear homage to so many classic chillers of the past with nods to Kubrick, Hitchcock and David Lean to name a few. The hotel is permanently surrounded by a thick fog, that does not clear despite the constant howling winds that whip round corners and shake doors. Soft, bleak winter light casts shadows from leafless trees, closing in around roadways and scratching at windows. There are mysteriously no other guests at the hotel, just two staff members who seem to come and go. Plus, the old house is, of course, full of creaking noises in the night and endless corridors and landings a la the Overlook hotel.

Whilst there is some suggestion of ghosts in The Eternal Daughter (and an ending you’ll see coming a mile off) it is more a musing on memory rather than a true horror story. Rosalind speaks on how as she gets older the past and present seem to blend together, and it is difficult to separate them out – Julie too seems to be falling down this rabbit hole. Hogg encourages the audience to question the version of events we are getting, building a mysterious picture before offering open ended answers that you can ruminate on yourself.

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As the film progresses Swinton (both Swinton’s that is) becomes increasingly neurotic, her emotions always just below the surface and liable to break at any moment. Whilst it’s certainly a fine bit of acting (especially when you consider her scene partner is herself) I did find her character quite irritating in places – frightfully posh and out of touch, she risks veering off into caricature at any time.

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The Eternal Daughter is a masterful tribute to classic horror with fantastic use of cinematography, lighting and scoring to recreate well established tropes. But beyond the surface the story feels a little thin, it’s central premise not quite living up to the stunning setting it creates for it.

The Eternal Daughter has been reviewed as part of the BFI London Film Festival where it premieres on 6th October 2022

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