Craig Roberts’s Eternal Beauty is a technically more accomplished but ultimately less satisfying follow up to his directorial debut Just Jim (2015). A child actor before his star turn as the Swansea teen in Submarine (2010) won him widespread acclaim, Roberts doesn’t feature in the new film as he did in Just Jim. But the material again comes from a personal place, with Roberts basing his script on the experiences of an aunt who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Despite its heartfelt biographical basis, though, Eternal Beauty ends up peculiarly unpersuasive.
Roberts’s debut already demonstrated an interest in the expressionistic depiction of mental states, and the new film continues that approach. It comes filtered through the perceptions of Sally Hawkins’s Jane, a fortyish woman negotiating mental health issues in the context of a troublesome family situation and a new romance. Flashbacks featuring Morfydd Clark as the younger Jane fill in bits of the protagonist’s past, with a Havisham-esque wedding-day jilting presented as a trigger for the character’s condition.
Deadpan comedy remains a default mode here, but Roberts also cites Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue (1993) as inspirations; shooting on film, he and DP Kit Fraser work strenuously to place us in the protagonist’s headspace. Still, the mix of art-conscious style and some sitcom-level writing jars. Despite scattered arresting images, the film sometimes resorts to banal symbolism, too, with a key step in Jane’s journey signalled by her snipping of the telephone cord that’s tethered her to her absent ex.
The film’s problems aren’t mitigated by Hawkins – who played Roberts’s mother in Submarine – here acting at full tilt. With a tottering gait, curious gazes and sudden goofy grins, it’s a performance that utilises every tic in the book but, apart from a touching hospital scene, little that Hawkins does here is as memorable as, for instance, her delicate work in Maudie (2016).
With the film structured as a showcase for its star, the other actors get short shrift in mostly unsympathetic roles. Billie Piper contributes a Julia Davis impersonation as the sister willing to fake mental illness for state benefits, and Penelope Wilton shows little of her customary subtlety as the abruptly ailing matriarch. David Thewlis provides some fresh energy as the musician love interest, but key relationships remain underexplored and, unlike the specifically rooted Just Jim, Eternal Beauty’s vagueness about its setting (locations are Welsh again but accents are London) exacerbates the thinness of its texture.
As a portrait of a woman dealing with the challenges of love, family, independence and mental health the film offers less in the way of insight than Benny & Joon did back in 1993.
Originally published: 2 October 2020