As a schizophrenic named Jane, Sally Hawkins delivers her most astringent performance to date. The creation of Jane’s onscreen life is an act of imagination equal to and inversely related to Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta. Where LaMotta went out to pummel the world in Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull (1980), Eternal Beauty traps Jane inside.
Like De Niro, Hawkins also transforms her body for the role. She’s emaciated, all skeletal angles, psychologically hungry and unfulfilled. Her complexion is waxy and ghostly blue. It’s hard to believe this is the same actress who played the incandescent Poppy, a life-affirming school teacher in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky (2008).
Apart from two vastly dissimilar storylines, Craig Roberts’ approach to directing Jane’s life is more detached than Scorcese’s. Roberts got himself stuck trying to externalize the character’s mental illness. He creates an unsteady narrative that stems from an unreliable mind. When Jane interacts with her family, the scenes are often emotionally intense, upsetting, and relentlessly depressing. But taken as a whole, the material doesn’t cohere into one convincing account of her life. If this were a biography, you’d be aware of several missing or redacted chapters.
One problem is that Jane’s version of events can’t always, or perhaps ever, be trusted. Flashbacks that feature another younger actress in the same part account for an adolescent breakdown. But the adult character isn’t given a monologue to articulate her own statement of purpose. When Hawkins played the mute Elisa in The Shape of Water (2018), Guillermo del Toro filmed the character in a song and dance routine. It made cinematic sense to see her internal fantasy world take hold momentarily as she was falling in love. But she didn’t live there full time.
Scorcese grounds LaMotta’s life with believable — if hyperreal and stylized — domestic scenes with his wife at home and with his brother in the boxing ring. LaMotta’s psychological problems are filmed from the outside in. He, and his problems, exist within a recognizable context. Eternal Beauty plays as if Jane never sets foot on planet Earth. At one point, Jane decides not to take her medication. But the look, pace and point of view of the film isn’t altered by that decision.
Roberts is overly reliant on off-kilter angles and saturated light filters that place Jane in a cartoon madhouse. He goes for expressionism (“Look what my camera can do!”) over realism. This approach is meant to signal his vision as an auteur, but fails to hold Hawkins and her determined work up as the brightly lit, demented centerpiece. The camera eye gravitates to the period costumes, bouffant wigs and retro furniture instead of concentrating on her. As a result, Jane becomes less and less real, just one more piece of moving scenery.
The supporting performances all rise to the occasion with more or less the same outcome. Jane’s main opponents are her own troubled mind and her monstrous mother Vivian (Penelope Wilton). As Vivian, Wilton burns off the carapace of the morally virtuous matron she played in Downton Abbey. It’s a pleasure to see her this shrill, cruel, and heartless. The fright wig she’s wearing is worthy of all the best movie villains that have preceded her.
Eternal Beauty should have been structured as a pas de deux between Hawkins and Wilton, without flashbacks robbing them of scenes together. The festering wound that contributes to Jane’s mental illness isn’t just localized in her mind. Vivian was the first person to open the wound and scrub it raw with a salt wash.
David Thewlis enters the film midway as Mike, a potential love interest for Jane. Mike’s not much more than a variation on the theme of madmen he’s played in the past. He exists in this world, like everyone else that Jane encounters, to confuse her or to cause her pain. Their chemistry is temporarily reminiscent of Thewlis and Jane Horrocks’ odd coupling in another Leigh movie, Life is Sweet (1990).
Roberts’ artistic argument in Eternal Beauty is that his aesthetic visually represents Jane’s schizophrenia. If that were the case, the audience would be responding to Jane and not to Hawkins’ extraordinary ability to act. Jane Campion’s direction of Sweetie (1989) and An Angel at My Table (1990) featured women suffering from different forms of mental illness. But she didn’t take their suffering as an opportunity to show off her skill set. Campion bears witness to their experiences. She embraces the souls of troubled human beings, presenting their vulnerabilities as they shiver and suffer, battered by traumas in a real and recognizable world.
Eternal Beauty is now playing virtually via the Smith Rafael Film Center.