Published Oct 02, 2020Before sitting down to watch Eternal Beauty, it felt like I hadn't seen Sally Hawkins since her Oscar-nominated turn in The Shape of Water. Her two films before this one — Paddington 2 and Godzilla: King of the Monsters — are both films I've seen. It's not that they're not memorable (Paddington 2 is the best film of the decade) but rather, they're films that don't allow her to use her range fully. One tends to forget how good she is and how transformative her performances can be. In writer-director Craig Roberts' sophomore feature, Hawkins delivers a powerful performance that reminds us why she's one of the best actresses of her generation. Much like The Shape of Water, her latest film sees her playing a woman with a disability – one that's psychological more than physical, but affects her in that way, too.
The audience is introduced to a woman with an anxious step, who wears exhaustion as foundation, and carries herself as though she has the world on her shoulders. Her mannerisms and the way she speaks are indicators that there's something not quite "normal" about her – but normal is boring, as the film proves. The film then, and throughout, flashes back in time to a young woman on her wedding day. She's left at the altar. We learn this is the film's protagonist, Jane, and that this day sent her spiralling down into the dark, chaotic hole that's now her life. We meet Jane as a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic on her long path to recovery (and discovery), one that will lead her to finding both happiness and love.
There are many elements of Eternal Beauty that stick out. Most notable is its tone, which is off-putting at first as it's not often you see a lighthearted film about this subject. It has a comedic heart and Hawkins is hilarious as she plays on her character's eccentricities, especially in scenes where she's with her family. Family is a big part of the film, and as the middle child of three sisters and the daughter of a domineering mother, these are relationships in Jane's life that are both complicated and fascinating to explore – and a brilliant cast to match with Alice Lowe and Billie Piper as her sisters and Penelope Wilton as her mother. This is one aspect that balances the line of comedy and drama, forming the film's heavy outer layer.
As Roberts blends Jane's past and present together, we are given a picture of a battered individual. She struggles to take her medication, which results in constant imaginary phone calls from someone who sounds like a lover. But while her mind may be wounded, her heart isn't, and she opens it up to love in the form of an old friend, Mike (David Thewlis). Both characters seem to be traveling on the same wavelength, and the actors bounce energetically off the other. With them, the film's heaviness dissipates, turning it into something that feels like a '90s rom com. They act like a couple of teenagers as one of those cheesy montages of them laughing and dancing plays to upbeat pop. But this romance is more like a medical advertisement – the joyfulness overshadowed by side effects. Jane's reality soon creeps back in. Her mental illness isn't something that can be cured by love as per a traditional Hollywood ending, and Roberts isn't afraid to show a dizzying road to recovery.
What's so inventive about Eternal Beauty is how it captures such a sensitive subject. The darkness and disjointedness of Jane's mind manifests through both Hawkins' performance and the film's visuals and editing. It's a little rocky and overwhelming at times, but you can't help being in awe of its cinematography and editing throughout that fully captures her illness and how it roots back to her past. Not only are there some genuinely cool shots, but as the state of her mental health fluctuates, depending on whether or not she's taking her medication, her surroundings change to match. The colour palette lightens and darkens, and the production design is clever in contrasting her environment and that of her sister, Alice (Lowe). Her home looks fake in its perfection, no marks found on its pastel walls. It's boring, while Jane's home at least has some personality no matter how dim. The severity of Jane's schizophrenia is also emphasized by the score and sound design. As we slowly watch her situation get worse and the voices in her mind become louder, the score gets louder, too. It's hard to imagine that a film about mental illness could be so tantalizing in its technical aspects. Additionally, the casting of Morfydd Clark as young Jane is absolutely brilliant. Not only because she's a performer who is able to mirror Hawkins' performance as the character, but because they look nothing alike. That's intentional as a way of illustrating how mental illness changes everything about a person, to the point where they're no longer recognizable.
Despite its rough edges, Craig Roberts, in only his second feature as writer and director, has created a film that's innovative and brimming with emotion. An absolutely marvellous, touching, sensitive and empowering perspective on mental illness. Eternal Beauty refuses to paint it as a negative quality in a person, but rather, an interesting one. (A71)