We first meet Jane (St Maud’s Morfydd Clark) in a flashback. She is being stood up at the altar on her wedding day. This appears to be the triggering event that starts her lifelong struggle with paranoid schizophrenia.
In the present day, Jane (now played by Sally Hawkins) is trying to navigate her life with the help of medication and a somewhat eccentric family. Her overbearing mother (Penelope Wilton), submissive father (Robert Pugh), older sister Alice (Alice Lowe) and younger sister Nicola (Billie Piper) try their best to look out for her. Her determination to be independent from her overbearing family stems from her past. Through flashbacks we see how she was pushed aside in favour of her sister’s beauty pageants.
While in her doctor’s waiting room, she meets Mike (David Thewlis). He’s a musician with his own mental health issues. There is a cute montage of their relationship blossoming in their own non-traditional way. Their relationship is entirely unromanticised, with a wonderfully normal yet incredibly tender sex scene.
Director/writer Craig Roberts, who has personal experience with paranoia schizophrenia, sensitively portrays her condition. He based the character of Jane on a family member who he grew up with, and he refers to her illness as her “superpower”. Jane is bright and sharp, perfectly capable with keeping up with the world around her despite the voices in her head. The narrative of Eternal Beauty is shown from Jane’s viewpoint. It’s vague on most things, including Jane’s condition which we only really learn about in the final scenes of the movie. This leaves viewers trying to work out what is real and what is a delusion. Voices on the radio tell her to kill herself and a phone rings with a mysterious lover on the end, what is real and what is not is left for you to decide.
Alice Lowe shines as Jane’s only sympathetic family member, weighed down with her son and husband. Her other sister, Nicola, appears to have her own mental health issues hidden behind a cruel streak. Clark, as a young Jane, is one of the few casting misfires. Although an incredible young talent, her performance appears very disconnected from the older Jane. Whilst Jane’s family backstory is not explored as deeply as some may like, this film belongs to Hawkins and her performance. The Oscar nominated actress perfectly balances pathos and passion, never falling back on the mental health cliches. Very few currently working actresses could deliver the emotional complexity to carry a film like this.
Their family dynamic is captured with doses of comedy alongside the dysfunction. Eternal Beauty revels in the awkward space after a misfired joke or a snappy comment between siblings. Life and love is uncomfortable, Roberts is smart enough to dramatize or minimise it. Sometimes it’s a challenging watch, too intimate and real, but the script and the cast know how to balance the heavy themes with dark humour.
Roberts smartly mixes social realism and surrealism, like a Mike Leigh/Danny Boyle hybrid with a touch of Wes Anderson. The pastel colour palette and interior décor of the family’s homes certainly have a nod to Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. As Jane pauses her medication midway through the film, the film becomes more dreamlike in atmosphere. The Welsh scenery only adds to the mysticism of Jane’s mind, transforming domesticity in the hyper-real.
Eternal Beauty and Sally Hawkins’ performance will stick with you long after the credit rolls. Craig Roberts reframes the narrative around mental illness without glossing over the bad. Jane’s condition doesn’t make life easy, but it helps her find joy in life.
Eternal Beauty is available in select UK cinemas from October 2nd
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy