The first thing that you should know about The Eternal Daughter, the latest film from director Joanna Hogg, is that it’s not as spooky as the trailer makes it seem. It is indeed a ghost story, one with some unsettling moments and themes, but the scariest thing about the movie is its frighteningly realistic depiction of familial relationships and how they can be damaged by grief. The second thing you should know is that Tilda Swinton plays her own mother, and she’s incredible.
The film appears to be set in the same semi-autobiographical universe as Hogg’s The Souvenir films and centers on a daughter and her elderly mother as they visit a quaint Welsh hotel. (Both characters are played by Swinton.) It’s the kind of old building that has spotty cell reception, Wi-Fi that only works on the top floor, and all kinds of creaks and bangs to keep you awake at night. It’s not just a simple getaway, though; the hotel was once the family home of the mother, Rosalind, and every room seems to remind her of something from her younger days. Often, they’re not happy memories. The daughter, Julie, is hoping to use the time to both get closer to her mother and get started working on a film about their relationship in the aftermath of her father’s death a few years prior.
The Eternal Daughter is a sparse film. This is most noticeable with the cast: the two characters played by Swinton appear to be the sole tenants in the hotel, and the only other people with meaningful screen time are a delightfully cranky hotel clerk (Carly-Sophia Davies) and a warm, fatherly groundskeeper (Joseph Mydell). This stripped-down nature makes each performance shine. Swinton, in particular, does a brilliant job of playing both characters; Julie is played with a neurotic undercurrent as she fusses over every detail about the hotel room and her mother, while Rosalind does her best to stay strong as the memories come flooding in. You can see both of them slowly crack as the film progresses.
That sparseness, and the quietness it creates, is what makes the film so unnerving. Like Hogg’s previous work, The Eternal Daughter is full of scenes of mundanity: the mother and daughter spending minutes debating what to eat at the hotel restaurant (when there are only four options) or Julie taking her mom’s adorable dog for a walk while searching for the one spot on the grounds with good reception. The two fall into a rhythm over their days at the hotel, and sights and sounds become familiar. Things as simple as the server’s loud footsteps cutting through the silence at dinner become jarring.
This is also what helps give the film its unnerving tone. No, there aren’t any jump scares or more overtly scary moments. But amid all of the quiet, there are scenes that create a creepy subtext, a bit like a Gothic romance where the ghosts are more sad than anything else. Julie has trouble sleeping at night because of loud banging windows that no one else seems to hear, and at certain times in the evening, she catches glimpses of an old woman’s face in a window. The tension builds as these unresolved mysteries continue, while at the same time, the pair struggles to communicate. Julie just wants to make her mom happy, but Rosalind can’t help but be overwhelmed as each day seems to bring a new memory to the surface. By the time the big (and not that hard to predict) twist happens, the weight of grief and family drama becomes almost too much to bear.
So no, The Eternal Daughter isn’t a scary film that just missed spooky season. But it is one that manages to create a full and emotionally exhaustive picture of a family by only using a few expertly crafted tools, unease being just one of them. Plus, it has twice as much Tilda as any other movie this year.
The Eternal Daughter hits theaters and on-demand services on December 2nd.