I have to admit that when I heard Tilda Swinton would be playing two roles in The Eternal Daughter, my immediate reaction was something like, “What else is new?” Swinton is a marvelous actor and a gifted multitasker. Maybe you remember her playing twin sisters in Hail, Caesar! or Okja, or taking on three different roles in the recent remake of Suspiria.
Tilda Swinton Stars Twice in ‘The Eternal Daughter’ — As Both Parent and Child
But The Eternal Daughter, the latest movie written and directed by Joanna Hogg, might be the most effective and moving casting stunt of Swinton's career. She plays a filmmaker, Julie, and her mother, Rosalind, who have come to stay at a remote Welsh hotel for a few days before Christmas. They’ve booked a double room for themselves and Rosalind’s dog, Louis, played by one of Swinton’s own spaniels. That’s about it for the cast, save a few members of the hotel staff, including an amusingly snippy receptionist played by Carly-Sophia Davies. It doesn’t appear there are any other guests.
While it unfolds at a measured pace, The Eternal Daughter is immediately gripping. Hogg has structured the movie as a kind of ghost story, and she’s clearly having fun with the conventions of the genre. The hotel is a marvelously creaky old estate in the middle of nowhere, shrouded in mists and moonlight. Strange noises disturb Julie’s sleep at night, and at one point, someone — it’s not clear who — opens the door to their room and Louis gets out. Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those slasher movies where the family pet winds up dead. Hogg isn’t really trying to scare us. But she has a wonderful feel for gothic atmosphere, something she heightens by shooting on 16mm film and playing eerie flute music during Julie’s walks on the hotel grounds.
All in all, the movie is a splendid reminder of how much magic a smart, subtle filmmaker can conjure without a massive visual-effects budget. And the most magical thing about it is Swinton’s double casting. Hogg shrewdly downplays her own gimmick. She rarely places Julie and Rosalind in the same frame, instead cutting between them during their many conversations. That must have made shooting less expensive, with minimal need for body doubles or digital trickery. The back-and-forth editing style also works well for the script, given that this mother and daughter tend to speak in polite, hesitant tones; rarely do they step on each other’s sentences. They clearly love and dote on each other — Julie, full of warmth and vigor, takes good care of Rosalind, who tires easily and isn’t in the best of health.
But there’s also a darker undertow to their relationship that gradually comes into focus. We learn that Rosalind was sent to stay at this place years ago during World War II, when she was still a child. She has some happy memories of her time here, but also a lot of traumatic ones — and Julie, we realize, wants to mine those memories for a future film project.
Here’s where things get complicated, since Julie is an alter ego for Joanna Hogg herself, and Rosalind is a stand-in for her own mother. This isn’t the first of Hogg’s movies to draw on her family life — I loved her two Souvenir films, about her early years as a student filmmaker in the 1980s. But The Eternal Daughter, set closer to the present day, is a different kind of cinematic memoir — more playful, and more mysterious. In reminiscing about her own relationship with her mother, Hogg raises all kinds of ideas about grief, loss and memory. She’s also questioning herself: Does she have any right to probe her mother’s personal history for her own artistic inspiration?
I don’t know the answer, and I don’t know if Hogg does, either. But I’m grateful to have spent time with these two characters and the great actor who plays them. Swinton’s casting isn’t just a stunt; it brilliantly conveys the uncomfortable transference of identity that often happens between mothers and daughters. At the same time, when they communicate, Julie and Rosalind show a certain reserve, shying away from confrontation or even emotion. But the shattering climax of The Eternal Daughter is nothing if not emotional. It leaves us with the intriguing notion that maybe all love stories are ghost stories, to the degree that we're all haunted, in some way, by the memories of those we love.