One of British actress Sally Hawkins’s earliest credits is a bit part (actually uncredited, apparently) in 1999’s The Phantom Menace. Since then, she’s notched dozens of roles on either side of the pond, from several roles in films by Mike Leigh and Woody Allen to the Paddington films to—perhaps most notably—her Oscar-nominated star turn in Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 Best Picture winner The Shape of Water. Not a bad run for just over 20 years in the business.
Which is all to say that these days, whenever I see Hawkins on a film’s marketing materials, I’m immediately inclined to give it a shot. She’s so consistently wonderful in whatever character she takes on, capable of creating deep internal motivations that she skillfully expresses externally, that her performances are always worth checking out. Such is the case for her latest film, Eternal Beauty, written and directed by Craig Roberts; though as a whole it’s a bit uneven, Hawkins delivers an absolutely captivating performance as Jane, a woman living with paranoid schizophrenia and the impact that diagnosis has on her relationships.
Roberts’s original script requires some navigating, as the details of Jane’s life aren’t immediately understood; that extra hurdle to getting to know her and her family (her aging parents and two sisters, one older with a family, the other younger and a bit of a rebel) make it hard to invest in the film initially, but soon Hawkins’s troubled but well-meaning Jane wins us over. There’s an early flashback scene of a young woman being stood up at the altar on her wedding day, and it isn’t immediately clear that it’s Jane who’s the one being left. It is, though, and it seems to be some sort of triggering event, Jane’s mental illness becoming evident after the trauma of it all.
In the present day, Jane navigates life with the help of medication that keeps her balanced and a family that looks out for her, particularly Vivian, her overbearing mother (Penelope Wilton), older sister Alice (Alice Lowe) and younger sister Nicola (Billie Piper). They tolerate her quirks (like bringing her own gifts for herself to the family Christmas) and look out for her when her condition tries to get the better of her. She’s sharp and observant, and even though she might have to navigate the voices in her head from time to time, she’s perfectly capable of keeping up with the world around her.
While in her doctor’s waiting room one day, Jane runs into Mike (David Thewlis), a musician with his own mental health issues, and the two hit it off in their own odd way. Jane doesn’t know the meaning of subtlety, always saying exactly what’s on her mind, and Mike doesn’t seem to mind. There’s a sweet montage of their courtship that’s as non-traditional as they are, including a straightforward sex scene that feels both sweet and strange. Jane decides she’s in love and announces to her family that she and Mike plan to get married. As expected, Vivian is having none of it, and resolves to keep the two of them apart. Soon, Jane’s condition devolves and the depth of her illness and its impact on her life becomes undeniable. Committed to a mental institution, the voices in her head become louder, the world around her seems to be unraveling and she’s struggling to keep track of what’s real and what’s not.
Despite the sometimes disconnected feel of the film’s narrative, the strength of Hawkins’s performance and writer/director Roberts’ eye for style keep Eternal Beauty interesting. Pops of color show up in unexpected places, from Alice’s dining room to the club where Mike plays his music, breaking up the monotony of other more dreary settings, and a few fun choices in camera work (cinematography by Kit Fraser) make the proceedings much more than your standard straight-on character drama. But it’s Hawkins in the central role that is worth sticking around for, every detail of her performance something of a masterclass in expression. From more lucid moments interacting with a world she doesn’t quite always understand to complex scenes where we can’t possibly know all that’s going on inside Jane’s chaotic mind, Hawkins is always tuned in and impressive.
Eternal Beauty is now streaming via Music Box Theatre’s Virtual Cinema. A portion of your rental goes to support the theater while it’s open with limited capacity.
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