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Creating a highly unusual and welcome look at schizophrenia that neither demonizes those with the condition nor patronizes them as suffering martyrs, the British drama Eternal Beauty pulls off a tricky feat. Sally Hawkins stars as a fragile but also irrepressibly resilient woman who hears voices and has paranoid episodes, her symptoms sometimes aggravated by her mostly vile, self-centered family. The feature helming debut of Welsh actor turned writer-director Craig Roberts (who played Hawkins’ son in the indie hit Submarine), this visually stylized work borrows buckets of quirk from the likes of Wes Anderson (design sensibility), Michel Gondry (in-camera trickery) and Paul Thomas Anderson (general gestalt), but that’s okay. A strong supporting cast that includes David Thewlis, Alice Lowe, Billy Piper, Penelope Wilton and suddenly-in-everything young actor Morfydd Clark (see also Saint Maud, The Personal History of David Copperfield) fills out the bouquet around Hawkins’ hothouse-intense and many-petalled core performance.
Shot in South Wales, but not especially specific about where or even when the story is supposed to be taking place, the film deploys a mix of studio spaces for the interiors and drizzle-soaked streets lined with feature-free, concrete-gray municipal housing units. In this soggy landscape, the waif-like figure of Jane (Hawkins) trudges through the streets in clothes that are always about six sizes too big for her. Jane was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic when she was in her early 20s (played by Clark) around the time she had a breakdown after being stood up at the alter by Johnny (unseen but incarnated only by the voice of Robert Aramayo on the phone). Having spent several spells in mental hospitals where shock therapy was used, Jane now lives semi-independently on state benefits by herself in a small but neatly provisioned apartment, chock full of vintage, pastel-pale mid-century pieces that would cost a fortune in downtown furniture stores these days.
Although she’s heavily dosed with medication that makes her a bit foggy and unfocused, Jane still displays a quick wit and beady eye for details, noticing for instance that there’s something shady afoot with her brother-in-law Tony (Paul Hilton), the husband of her kindly sister Alice (Alice Lowe). At a family gathering for Christmas, Jane distributes presents to each member of her family — mum Vivian (Penelope Wilton, a wickedly funny study in passive aggression), henpecked dad Dennis (Robert Pugh), Alice and mean sister Nicola (Billie Piper) — that they are meant to give back to Jane since she doesn’t like what they usually buy her. She even has the receipts to show how much each item cost and therefore what they must pay her for the gifts she proceeds to unwrap and then coo over with seemingly genuine delight.
When Jane decides to stop taking her medication, things get much more hectic. Although it means she starts to see huge spiders crawling everywhere and takes to tearing tiny strips of wallpaper away, she also feels more alive and electric. In a waiting room one day, she meets a kindred live wire, Mike (Thewlis), an aspiring musician who likewise has serious mental issues that require medication. But the two of them have fun together, like teens on a playdate, complete with fumbling, unsatisfying sex. Before long Mike moves in, but sulky seductive Nicola, having fallen out with her new rich old boyfriend Lesley (Tony Leader), contrives to ruin things, which results in another breakdown for Jane and a return visit to the hospital.
The shooting on actual chemical film, out-of-focus shots and all, by Kit Fraser enhances the subtle palette of colors in costumes and sets that reflect Jane’s shifting moods and also makes the film even more otherworldly, warm and soft compared to the hard-edged realism of our digital world today. What’s more, Roberts deploys an assortment of tilted angles and in-camera jiggery-pokery to create a correlative to Jane’s off-kilter but creative mindset. At a Q&A session for the London Film Festival screening caught for this review, Roberts spoke about how her character was inspired by someone in his own family with a similar mental profile and how he wished to pay tribute to this “superpower” of his beloved relative instead of stigmatizing her condition. To that end, medical advice from an academic expert was taken, and that care and attention to how schizophrenia affects those who have it — and to an extent, those around them — is very much palpable in the layered performance Hawkins submits here, one that makes full use of the actor’s limitlessly expressive features.
To Roberts’ credit, his script manages to build up a narrative that has a shape and heft to it and doesn’t just feel like pages of a psych manual. Eternal Beauty is almost as much a story about a dysfunctional unhappy family as it is about one of the few likeable members in that family, and the strong ensemble keeps the comedy buoyant throughout.
Production companies: BFI, The Wellcome Trust, Cliff Edge Pictures, Endeavor Content
Cast: Sally Hawkins, David Thewlis, Penelope Wilton, Alice Lowe, Billie Piper, Robert Pugh, Morfydd Clark, Paul Hilton, Boyd Clack, Elysia Welch, Ashley McGuire
Director-screenwriter: Craig Roberts
Producer: Adrian Bate
Executive producers: Pip Broughton, Mary Burke, Meroe Candy, Hilary Davis, Emma Duffy, Paul Higgins, Adam Partridge
Director of photography: Kit Fraser
Production designer: Tim Dickel
Costumes: Sian Jenkins
Editor: Stephen Haren
Music: Michael Price
Music supervisor: Gary Welch
Casting: Emily Jacobs, Karen Lindsay-Stewart
Venue: London Film Festival (Dare)
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