The evenings are getting darker. There is a layer of frost on the ground. You can see your breath in the cold air. It is the time of year for a chilling tale with unexpected twists. According to renowned director Martin Scorsese, this is the perfect moment in her career for Joanna Hogg to direct such a film. “He was trying to inspire me to collaborate on a ghost story with him,” Hogg recalls. “He believed it was a direction I could explore. So I asked him to recommend some ghost stories for me to read.” Scorsese kept his promise and suggested works such as They by Rudyard Kipling, Casting the Runes by MR James, and The Mezzotint by Robert Aickman and Edith Wharton.
The result was Hogg’s evocative new film The Eternal Daughter. Executive produced by Scorsese, and starring Tilda Swinton, it is set in a remote and largely deserted hotel where a frail elderly mother and her middle-aged daughter have come for a birthday minibreak. It is the kind of old, mist-wreathed building where the floorboards creak mysteriously and the hairs stand up on the back of your neck for no known reason. Where you’re bound – surely – to spot at least one ghost …
However, the mystical ambiance introduced by Scorsese in the beginning is just a small aspect of the film’s background. As a filmmaker, Hogg began her career later than most of her peers, having first gained experience as a director in mainstream television dramas. It was not until she was in her late forties that her debut film, Unrelated, was released in 2007 and pleasantly surprised critics. This initial work was flawlessly executed, avoiding the common pitfalls of novice filmmaking. The movie depicted a childless woman in her forties on vacation with friends who have children in Italy, and stood out for its confidence, humor, and efficient storytelling (as well as introducing a breakout role for a young Tom Hiddleston).
After completing Unrelated, Hogg had plans to create The Eternal Daughter, a movie based on her mother-daughter relationship. However, she ended up directing two more standalone films, which were also well-received and included Hiddleston in the cast. The first was Archipelago (2010), which explored a dysfunctional family gathering on the Isles of Scilly, followed by Exhibition (2013), a drama about a romantic relationship starring Viv Albertine, the guitarist from the Slits. Hogg then went on to create a visually stunning and ambitious bildungsroman spanning two chapters, set in the 1980s and titled The Souvenir (2019) and The Souvenir: Part II (2021). These films were inspired by Hogg’s personal experiences while attending film school.
In both of the Souvenir films, Swinton and the filmmaker have worked together. The two have been close friends since they were children, and their first collaboration was on Hogg’s short film, Caprice (1986). In an email, Swinton describes their relationship as the original working partnership that has shaped her career. She also reflects on how their shared interests and conversations in the past centered around observing life from a similar perspective, possibly feeling somewhat removed or alienated. Looking back, she sees their relationship as a continuous conversation between two filmmakers.
Martin Scorsese, who came across Hogg’s work by watching Archipelago on DVD, not only served as executive producer for both Souvenir films and The Eternal Daughter, but also praised her films for their “implosive” nature (in contrast to his own films featuring explosive characters). Hogg’s filmmaking style is defined by intricately portrayed characters, often captured in long, still shots with natural lighting, and written with the depth and insight of a literary master like George Eliot. Despite seemingly subdued storylines, her films share similarities with the understated plots favored by Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu.
While her films are very British in some ways – setting, characters, emotional restraint – her work has shone on the world stage, where critics and audiences seem more at ease with her nuanced and realistic portrayals of upper middle-class material comfort paired with emotional anxiety. Her films have played abroad at prestigious international film festivals, while bizarrely being snubbed by Bafta back home. Perhaps that is to do with Oscar Wilde’s theory about the rage of Caliban on seeing himself reflected in the looking glass.
Why did it take Hogg a long time to revive The Eternal Daughter? Hogg’s manner of speaking is hesitant but direct in its content; it leaves you with the impression of someone who always strives to be completely truthful and precise, even when discussing uncomfortable subjects. In Hogg’s own words, “Similar to Julie in the eventual film, I was sidetracked by concerns about upsetting my mother. There were feelings of guilt – all of those emotions that arise in the film, which I explore in a way within the film. So I set it aside.”
None of this is to suggest that Hogg’s bond with her own mother, who died in 2021, was not a positive one; more that she felt an intense sense of responsibility around any portrait she might attempt to create. “We had a very good relationship, and I was very, very fond of her,” she says. “So I felt the responsibility as a daughter of wanting her to be as happy as possible, and in that process I would lose a sense of myself. It would take me a while to gather myself up after visiting her.”
Many daughters and sons, regardless of age, can understand the feeling of wanting to take care of someone without them knowing. Hogg says that the responsibility of being a daughter can start at a young age, depending on the relationship and circumstances. She personally felt a strong sense of responsibility and concern for her mother at a young age, which may not have been entirely healthy.
After over ten years since coming up with the idea, Hogg was prepared to produce the movie: “By then, I thought perhaps there was a way for me to create it without feeling like I’m simply following in my mother’s footsteps.”
During these mandatory periods of imaginative growth, opportunities for success may arise. Despite the gothic nature of the story, the most significant change to the initial idea was suggested by the film’s lead, Tilda Swinton. What if, in addition to portraying Julie, she also took on the role of the mother? This idea was not originally considered, but during a casual conversation, Swinton proposed the idea of playing both characters.
Not every actor would take this suggestion seriously, especially since Hogg’s filmmaking process is not conventional. Instead of writing a script, she creates a 30-page document outlining the general plot of the film. Hogg’s actors do not have traditional lines to learn, but rather understand their character and the direction of the scene. Swinton views this process as “well-grounded and simple, without the technical worries of memorizing lines and coordinating with others. The dialogue in Joanna’s films comes naturally from the characters.”
However, despite this procedure, how was it possible for Swinton to effectively act opposite herself?
“Tilda is impressively improvising with herself,” Hogg chuckles. “She’s incredibly talented, and I still can’t believe what she accomplished.” Before filming, Hogg would join Swinton on set and act as her scene partner, laying the groundwork for their conversation. Once satisfied, Hogg would step away and Swinton would continue the scene on her own. After capturing the necessary material, there would be a change in costume, hair, and makeup, and filming would resume with Swinton playing the other character.
Hogg praises Tilda’s performance, stating that she was exceptional. He was particularly impressed by the subtle differences and nuances she brought to each of her characters, including their gestures. He even saw it as a form of possession.
This is a matter of ownership, but also a matter of immense reliance, considering the worries that had previously caused Hogg to put the project on hold. It reminds me of the quote by Oscar Wilde: “All women turn into their mothers. That is their unfortunate fate. No man does. That’s his.” The movie presents the concept of our parents as reflections of our future selves in a tangible way, to the point where it’s truly challenging, as a viewer, to envision the film without the dual role at its core.
Hogg explains that our mothers often reflect ourselves in various aspects. Combining the two entities is logical. Being a fan of ghost stories, Hogg turned the story into a ghostly one to distance it from her own mother. She also likes the concept of mothers being like future ghosts. Since she was young, she has had a fear of losing her mother and not having her presence anymore.
It seems that The Eternal Daughter, among all of Hogg’s works, shares the most similarities thematically with her Souvenir films from the 1980s. In these films, Swinton portrays a character named Rosalind, who is based on Hogg’s own mother. In The Eternal Daughter, the elderly Rosalind’s age would align with that of Hogg’s mother. Swinton’s real-life daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne, plays Rosalind’s daughter in the Souvenir films, while Swinton herself takes on the role in The Eternal Daughter. This character is named Julie. Interestingly, Swinton wears the same dresses in important birthday party scenes in both films. This blurs the lines between different identities in different directions. However, Swinton clarifies that Julie is not meant to represent either of them and that Rosalind is not a direct portrayal of their mothers. They are recognizable to them but still hold an air of mystery. Therefore, it is best to view these characters as a poetic reflection rather than an imitation.
Hogg is hesitant to discuss her future plans as a filmmaker, but she does express some excitement about the potential for a change in direction or exploring new terrain. She believes she is just beginning to tap into something new and wants to push herself in different ways. Personally, she feels compelled to continue being daring, and for her, that means being innovative and creating films. However, she acknowledges that time is limited.
It is tempting to ask what Hogg’s mother finally thought of The Eternal Daughter in the end, after all that time. It’s a question sadly destined to an eternity without an answer. “In fact, my mother died when we were editing,” Hogg says. “She was very much looking forward to seeing the film, so I’m very sad that she never saw it.” Her tone is composed, but she then repeats herself a little, as if she can’t quite believe it. “I was worried about her seeing it, but she died when we were editing … ”
She pauses and says, “I then came to the realization that I was able to cope with my mother’s passing while also pursuing my work. However, I later discovered that the grief didn’t truly hit me until almost a year after her death. I’m not sure if creative work can fully substitute for the emotional process of losing a loved one.”
“The task is the task.” She stops once more and repeats herself. “The task is the task.”
“The film The Eternal Daughter will be showing in cinemas across the UK and Ireland beginning on Friday. Throughout the month of November, BFI Southbank will also be featuring two series, Internal Reflections: The Films of Joanna Hogg and Joanna Hogg: Influences.”