What if schizophrenia was actually a secret superpower? That’s the thinking behind Eternal Beauty – a heartfelt, eccentric British indie that takes a welcome sideways look at mental health. Directed by Craig Roberts (Submarine, Just Jim) and featuring an extraordinary lead performance from Sally Hawkins (The Shape Of Water, Paddington) spanning comedy, horror, social drama and high fantasy, it’s a rare film that juggles many ideas but still manages to keep some kind of balance.
Hawkins is Jane, a woman whose state of mind spirals out of control after she’s left at the altar – now shuffling through a medicated haze where voices speak from the walls and invisible spiders stare back with human faces, she lives almost entirely in her own orbit. Wonderfully though, it’s not Jane who has the problem. Surrounded by a truly awful family, Jane’s world might be spinning around her but she’s the only one in the film who knows how to hold on to what matters.
Her mum (Penelope Wilton, from After Life) seems ashamed of her, her sister Alice (Alice Lowe, Prevenge and Sightseers) won’t stand up for her and her other sister, Nicola (Billie Piper, just as fierce as she is in I Hate Suzie), takes a perverse pleasure in being as cruel as possible.
Jane’s secret power comes from seeing the world the way she wants to see it, but as she comes off her meds she starts slowly remembering how bad things used to be, with Saint Maud’s Morfydd Clark playing Jane as a young girl growing up in the most dysfunctional family flashbacks imaginable. Things get easier when fellow schizophrenic Mike (David Thewlis – Harry Potter, Fargo) turns up and the pair start skipping through a sweet folksy romance that no one else seems to understand, but it doesn’t take long before her family starts trying to mess that up for her too.
There’s a whole lot of ideas packed into 90 minutes – swerving from offbeat comedy to raw-edged social drama as Jane’s world vibrates on and off kilter – and the film is just as crowded with visual ideas as it is with tonal shifts. Somehow though, Roberts makes it all work.
His directorial debut, Just Jim (2015), caught flak for borrowing too much from Richard Ayoade’s Submarine (2010), and there are still remnants of that film to be found here in the deadpan humour and retro vintage styling – but Eternal Beauty feels very much like its own animal. Confident and mature in its design; with a real eye for texture and colour, the film feels like it was made by someone with something to say.
More importantly, Sally Hawkins is there to say it. The film is filled with rich performances (Thewlis and Piper, especially), but Hawkins brings so much emotional honestly to Jane that she always feels like the most authentic part of all the unreality – grounding the whole film with one of the standout roles of her career. Of all the great on-screen representations of mental health throughout the years, it’s still rare to see an actor bring so much joy and so much pain to a character without ever feeling false.
Too in love with the way it looks to wallow too long in kitchen-sink drama, and too hard-hitting to feel like the high-flying Hollywood fantasy it sometimes wants to be, Eternal Beauty ends up being everything at once – an all or nothing psychodrama that revels in its own excess. It might be a bit messy, conflicted and chaotic at times, but that’s sort of the whole point.
- Director: Craig Roberts
- Starring: Sally Hawkins, David Thewlis, Billie Piper
- Released: October 2 (in cinemas and on demand)