Wednesday 30 September 2020

Wild (mood) swings: "Eternal Beauty"

I'm guessing it went something like this: in the wake of The Shape of Water's Oscar win, its star Sally Hawkins did the studio rounds, only to find she wasn't wildly keen on the kind of projects that were being set before her, and/or that those studios were unlikely ever to generate the kind of projects she'd be interested in. The role of a mutely masturbating charlady who finds love in the arms of an eight-foot amphibian would be hard to follow, let alone top. (To this day, I'm still not entirely sure how anybody got that movie to work as well as it did.) So it is that, with Eternal Beauty, we rejoin Hawkins in provincial Wales, and in a state of considerable disarray. Her character here, Jane, is a pallid, muttering eccentric whose life fell apart after she was jilted at the aisle some twenty years before. What she took with from this breakdown is an extreme case of depression, though spending even five minutes in her company would suggest Jane has issues besides: glimmers of OCD and paranoid schizophrenia, the occasional show of delusion. (She takes phone calls from her errant fiancé, telling her to hold on for him.) The film establishes its heroine as in such a state, whether on or off her meds, that it comes as a particular shock when we suddenly see her behind the wheel of a car. Two minutes into the scene, and you realise why this isn't the cleverest - hell, the safest - of ideas. Jane is an accident waiting to happen.

Eternal Beauty, clearly, is playing a dangerous game. Its young writer-director, the sometime actor Craig Roberts (Just Jim), is looking to expand our conversations around mental health by putting a character with severe mental health issues front and centre; the risk is that said character is a liability to herself, others and any notion of an easy evening's entertainment, someone whose gaze we might prefer to avoid. Here's where Hawkins sweeps in to save the day: we can't take our eyes off her. The film has elements of one of those quirksome low-budget curios Britfilm occasionally turns out. There's the threat of a tritely redemptive romance between Jane and porkpie-hatted waiting room chancer Mike (David Thewlis), set out in that red/blue colour scheme that filtered down from Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love into such late Noughties titles as Submarine (in which Hawkins and Roberts played mother and son): a latter-day indie staple that would still be eyecatching if it hadn't been so overused. And the longer Eternal Beauty goes on, the likelier it appears that at least one or two of the film's bustling minor parts are no more than figments of the protagonist's hyperactive imagination. In other words, be prepared: at least some of what's on screen is going to wind you up. What pulled this viewer through these shakier patches was the seriousness with which Hawkins approaches every last one of Jane's tics and hang-ups: she imports a bolstering gravity, and a quiet, quietly moving sense of tragedy, to what might otherwise have been played as faintly twee comedy.

American indies in this vein tend to send their outcasts out into the world with neat, manageable pockets of neuroses, aiming to normalise any mad, bad or sad behaviour within a round 90 minutes; Roberts enables Hawkins to scatter hers across the screen like Ophelia's posies. The performance is almost too much for a film as essentially small as this, but it's also enough to destabilise it, to knock Eternal Beauty out of any cosier rhythms it might settle into. The supporting cast have their moments, granted: Penelope Wilton as Jane's overbearing mum, paired with an understandably cowed Robert Pugh; Alice Lowe and Billie Piper as Jane's chalk-and-cheese sisters. But it's the Hawkins show, and you keep catching her co-stars watching her with both a concern becoming to their characters and the amazement of actors who can't quite believe the level at which their colleague is operating. As befits a film that takes a lot of cues from Anderson's Magnolia, the audience is going to be split between those who find Eternal Beauty rewardingly offbeam and those who find the experience like hearing nails on a blackboard, but we should give Roberts credit for making some ballsy choices, and for having the smarts to crib from something like the best. At the very least, his film confirms an idea floated around the time of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky and consolidated by 2016's Maudie: that with the withdrawal of Daniel Day-Lewis from the scene, Hawkins may be British cinema's last genius standing.

Eternal Beauty opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

No comments:

Post a Comment