THE STORY – A filmmaker and her elderly mother confront long-buried secrets when they return to a former family home that’s now a hotel haunted by its mysterious past.
THE CAST – Tilda Swinton
THE TEAM – Joanna Hogg (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 96 Minutes
From its first moments, Joanna Hogg’s “The Eternal Daughter” firmly asserts itself as a ghost story. We open with a shot of a lone taxi meandering its way along a dark, mist-laden forest road. Inside sit a middle-aged woman and her elderly mother (somewhat disconcertingly, both are played by Tilda Swinton) who are on their way to a remote hotel in an old country estate. Their driver recalls an eerie paranormal encounter. A mournful flute plays a haunting melody in a minor key. This is a ghost story — but not the kind you might expect.
When mother and daughter arrive at the isolated hotel, they are greeted by a stoney-faced receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davies) who goes out of her way to be unhelpful. During the day, the hotel is drafty, gloomy, and seemingly completely empty. During the night, however, the building seems to come alive, transforming into something out of an Edgar Allan Poe story. A thick mist settles around the house and its decrepit grounds. Strange noises echo through the empty halls. Windows bang in the wind, and the floorboards of empty rooms creak and thud. An eerie neon green light cascades from the exit signs, bathing the outdated wallpaper in a disconcerting alien glow. It’s chilling and tense to watch — thanks to its atmosphere alone; the film will undoubtedly leave a lasting impression.
Despite the creepy hotel, the daughter is determined to enjoy the getaway. She fusses over her mother, desperate for the holiday to be a success. The daughter, it turns out, is a filmmaker who is working on a film about her mother. The hotel was once her mother’s aunt’s home. Her daughter pries her for memories of the place, recording her secretly on her phone. The mother remembers playing with other children on the staircase during the war. She remembers learning about a family member’s death in the parlor and having a miscarriage in the bedroom.
The tension between mother and daughter builds alongside the growing sense that an eerie paranormal presence is lurking in the building. Finally, in one of the most painfully bleak on-screen birthday parties in cinema history, it becomes clear that the hotel isn’t haunted by a ghost — at least not in the traditional sense.
The backbone of the film is Swinton, with her riveting dual performance as mother and daughter. As the mother, she captures that instantly recognizable Keep-Calm-And-Carry-On, stiff upper lip-ness of the British upper classes of an older generation. As the daughter, she brings a heartbreaking internal struggle to life as she tries to keep her mother happy while ignoring her profound disappointment at their dismal holiday and, seemingly by extension, their inability to ever really connect.
Ultimately, “The Eternal Daughter” is a ghost story about being haunted by the unknowable past of the generations that came before. It is also about being haunted by a future you can never have. As the daughter reveals, she never had children of her own. She is eternally a daughter. When all the pieces of the ghostly mystery fall into place, it suddenly seems very simple. For some viewers, it may, in fact, feel a little too neat, a little too predictable. But even so, “The Eternal Daughter” is a tender film that works slowly but effectively to unravel the heartbreak of daughterhood. As the mother becomes more frail, more fragile, more distant, the daughter strives harder and harder to grasp a moment of connection with her until, in a simple but nonetheless magnificent shot of Swinton holding a birthday cake, Hogg quietly deals the final emotional blow — and it is one that will stick with viewers long after the credits roll.