The Eternal Daughter' is a Haunting and Graceful Ghost Story

The Eternal Daughter' is a Haunting and Graceful Ghost Story

- By Nicolás Delgadillo

From A24, this Gothic-style take on a classic haunted hotel is a slowburn with deep emotions at its core

Joanna Hogg has astounded audiences and delighted critics these past few years with her two-part semi-autobiographical tale The Souvenir. An emotionally honest, deeply introspective, yet no less actively engaging story of a young film student finding her voice in her art while also navigating a particularly toxic romance, both 2019’s The Souvenir and its 2021 sequel The Souvenir Part II firmly solidified Hogg as one of the very best in the field today. Both films are essential modern viewing.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Instead, consider the opinion of an industry legend like Martin Scorsese, who’s personally helped produce Hogg’s past three films. So the announcement of a new film by the British filmmaker was going to turn heads no matter what. The fact that her latest was shot entirely in secret during the height of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns makes it all the more enticing. Oh, and it also happens to be a Gothic-style ghost story starring Tilda Swinton set in a seemingly abandoned hotel so, yeah, I’ll take ten of those, inject it directly into my veins, you get the picture. For a film geek like myself, it’s an easy sell.

The movie is called The Eternal Daughter and marks Hogg’s first true foray into genre, with all of her previous works having been more straightforward dramas. It begins with a woman named Julie (Swinton) who arrives at a gorgeous but chilling hotel in Wales one foggy evening. She’s brought along her mother Rosalind (also Swinton, pulling off a dual performance) to celebrate the elderly woman’s birthday and spend some time away from the outside world. They’ve also brought their wonderful and exceptionally perceptive dog Louis (who stars as himself).

Tilda Swinton stars as Julie in 'The Eternal Daughter'
Courtesy of A24

There’s an immediate sense of unease about the large and mysterious building, setting the stage for Hogg to play with some conventional haunted house tropes in her distinctly slow and naturalistic style. There’s creepy portraits, long dark hallways, creaking doors, howling wind - you name it. And outside of a curt receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davies) and kindly groundskeeper (Joseph Mydell), the place appears to be completely empty. These are all familiar elements of the classic kind of ghost story that Hogg is attempting to tell. You won’t be finding much in the way of jump scares or grotesque imagery here; The Eternal Daughter is far more concerned with successfully building out its singular setting and haunting atmosphere as it steadily reveals its story bit by bit.

Furthering the thread of metatextuality that’s been woven through Hogg’s recent work, we come to learn that Julie is a filmmaker who has come to the hotel to try and write a new film about her mother. The hotel used to be her childhood home, where she grew up alongside her extended family during the second World War. Julie hopes that bringing her back here will help stir her memories and make for some inspiration, but she finds that Rosalind is quite reluctant to discuss subjects like bombing raids and such. There’s a fear that Julie can’t do her own mother’s story justice, or if she even has the right to try at all. Are these anxieties the real cause behind Julie’s lack of sleep and eerie experiences in the night, or does Rosalind have some literal ghosts that she left behind long ago?

Things coalesce during an explosively emotional birthday dinner in a scene that left me floored. Like the best films, The Eternal Daughter reveals itself to be capable of conveying the most difficult to describe, secretly universal experiences, especially the ones we have when alone in the dark. And like the best ghost stories, there’s a profound sense of sadness; of capturing that sense of regret and unfinished business that so often accompany these sorts of tales. It’s what makes the film’s ending all the more cathartic and, most importantly, truthful.

Courtesy of A24

Swinton is as mesmerizing as she’s ever been playing the purposefully mirrored roles. After all, these are characters that she's been able to grow intimately familiar with. The Julie and Rosalind of The Eternal Daughter are the very same from The Souvenir films albeit a couple of decades older, making Hogg’s latest a sort of stealth sequel / epilogue to her latest meditations on aspects of her own life. In exploring her personal relationship with her mother through the lens of a Gothic ghost story, she’ll undoubtedly make many viewers contemplate their own. Hogg always delivers her emotionally devastating truths with graceful technique. The Eternal Daughter is as hauntingly beautiful as any ghost story has been.

‘The Eternal Daughter’ is now playing in select theaters and available to rent or buy digitally.
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