All places are haunted, and the older they are, the more spirits they have to walk their hallways. Perhaps these are not ghosts in the supernatural sense but merely an echo of the lives that were once spent there, memories powerful enough to take on an almost physical presence. The Eternal Daughter is an eerie, atmosphere ghost story in the Gothic tradition, although it never attempts to scare its audiences, instead cultivating an overwhelming sense of melancholy that thickens the very air the characters breathe. Tilda Swinton carries the film on her shoulders, acting as both mother and daughter as they descend upon the remote hotel where they will spend their holiday. And although director Joanna Hogg luxuriates at a slow pace, creating a narrative in which very little actually happens, the moody cinematography is nonetheless captivating.
Julia (Tilda Swinton) is a middle-aged screenwriter who books a trip for her and her ailing mother, Rosalind (also played by Swinton). Together, they travel to an isolated yet picturesque country house turned hotel which carries significant meaning for the elder woman. Back when the hotel still operated as a home and was occupied by a single family of the landed gentry, it belonged to Rosalind’s aunt. During World War II, when many children were sent away from the cities for their safety to avoid the nightly German bombing raids, she and her cousins spent many days there, happy and unhappy alike. Each room of the hotel carries unbidden memories, some more pleasant than others but all inescapable.
By bringing her mother to a familiar place from her childhood, Julia hopes that the two of them can connect on a deeper level. She is in the process of writing a script about their relationship, but every time she sits down to work on it, she finds herself unable to pen a single word. She is taken to recording soundbites from their conversations, hoping to find something that will provide a creative spark.
But while she is on this mission, she can’t help but notice that the hotel is somehow peculiar. She and her mother appear to be the only guests, the only living souls in the entire building, in fact, aside from the comically neglectful hostess and a kindly caretaker. But despite the lack of other people, the hotel doesn’t feel empty: Julia hears loud noises coming from the room above her late at night, a supposedly unoccupied room. And as she wanders the hotel late at night, looking for the source of the noise, or her mother’s missing dog, or simply to investigate, she does not get the sense that she is entirely alone.
Joanna Hogg proves herself to be a master of cultivating atmosphere and dread. Although there’s little horror on display in The Eternal Daughter, Hogg shoots the film following the model of a good, old-fashioned ghost story, taking advantage of every creaking floorboard, a gust of howling wind at the door, and eerily unoccupied hallway. She could not have chosen a better location for her film that this imposing manor house in Wales, which has more character in one single panel of wallpaper than most entire sets.
Tilda Swinton is marvelous in both of the roles that she plays. She portrays them as two such distinct entities that it becomes very easy to forget that she’s actually the actor bringing both of them to life. As Julia, she wants so badly to please her mother and offer up small gifts that might make her happy. In her desperation to cling to this relationship, she’s almost overbearing – but of course, we learn the root of this dynamic in due time.
Although Joanna Hogg and Tilda Swinton have worked together before, on The Souvenir and its sequel, The Eternal Daughter represents their collaboration relationship maturing and allowing each to reach new heights. Hogg builds a masterfully unsettling drama with atmosphere to spare, and Swinton has rarely been better in her dual roles of Julia and Rosalind, so fully embodying both women as to make the audience forget that she’s playing both characters. The Eternal Daughter may not be a barnstormer of a film, but it has its own melancholic charm that makes it impossible to look away from.