This psychological mystery from Joanna Hogg contains genuine intimacy and emotional generosity. It is a personal film that shares similarities with her previous works, such as the Souvenir films. Rather than aiming to frighten the audience, it is a ghost story that delves into the enigma of one’s parents’ lives. It explores the unknowable aspects of their existence before and after one’s birth, highlighting the paradox of feeling both familiar and mysterious. The film suggests that the only way to truly understand and solve this puzzle is to become one’s own parent and experience life from their perspective, yet even then, certainty may not be attained.
Actress Tilda Swinton delivers a heartfelt and cleverly distinct performance as a filmmaker who takes her aging mother to a country hotel for her birthday. The hotel used to be a private estate where her mother spent time as a child. Swinton’s character also hopes to make progress on her current screenplay while there. Swinton portrays both the daughter and the charmingly aristocratic mother, who proves her upper-class status by bringing her dog, Louis, along. (Director Joanna Hogg playfully challenges traditional class markers by having the mother anticipate fish knives at dinner, going against John Betjeman’s famous satirical critique of this type of cutlery.)
Hogg strategically arranges for Swinton’s daughter and mother to engage in conversations through shot-reverse-shot exchanges, leaving the audience anticipating their on-screen reunion. When it finally happens, it marks a significant shift in the narrative. The eerie hotel adds to the unease as the two women seem to be the only guests, despite facing issues with their booking. The daughter is disturbed by mysterious noises coming from the empty rooms at night. The receptionist, Carly-Sophia Davies, exhibits a rude and unprofessional demeanor while serving them dinner in the dimly lit restaurant. However, the concierge, Joseph Mydell, stands out as a kind and understanding figure who plays a melancholic tune on his flute, which is revealed to be a part of the film’s soundtrack. This reveal adds a comedic touch in contrast to the overall atmosphere of the film.
The mother is kind and cheerful, happy with her gifts and the attention she receives, but the daughter can sense that her mother is hiding a deep sadness or pain. This has been apparent to her throughout her life, and she is devastated and frustrated that her mother won’t confide in her. Returning to their old house brings back many sad memories for both women, and the daughter is confused by her mother’s tearful reaction. The older woman, who belongs to a generation that avoids showing emotions, is grateful (though a bit embarrassed) for the younger woman’s efforts. The daughter is ashamed to know that her mother is saddened by her inability to bear children, and the fact that she will always be a daughter and never a mother. It is unsettling to see Swinton’s mother appear older in each shot, staring into the camera with a sense of foreboding about the future. What mysteries lie within this haunted hotel? It sometimes resembles the setting of Rattigan’s play Separate Tables, but also gives off a similar vibe to the final scenes of Kubrick’s 2001.
This intimate and touching indie movie captures a beautiful moment between a mother and daughter. I particularly enjoyed the scene where the mother stumbled while approaching the restaurant table and the daughter’s immediate concern was evident. In the next moment, the daughter had to quickly turn her alarm into something lighthearted and comforting. “The Eternal Daughter” is a poignant and tender moment of self-discovery for Hogg.