Eternal Beauty is Writer/Director Craig Roberts’ second feature, following 2015’s Just Jim. It’s an unusual but ultimately captivating look at mental health, love and family. Full of compassion, vivid visuals and tenderness amongst conceivably intense situations, his film tells the story of Jane (Sally Hawkins), who after being left at the altar as a young woman spirals down into a depression, which is aided by a lack of support from her family, and especially her Mother, just when she needs them.
The film is told in two parts, initially skipping forward in time and giving us a ‘now’, with the context of how Jane has got to this point coming later, so be patient. While we’re not specifically told what her sickness is at this stage, it’s clear that deep, psychological issues lie beneath the surface. She’s withdrawn from society and distant from reality, despite having routines that keep her close to some form of day-to-day existence, offering us a suggestion that she’s trying to connect.
The first half builds the world that Jane may be living and, quite purposefully, it’s not always clear. We notice her peculiar behaviour, but we’re also made aware of her hearing voices, suggesting a breakdown is coming or has been a struggle for years. The only support she appears to get is from a therapist, but this is the 1980s (I think), and so that’s limited to positive thought, taking prescribed tablets and getting on with it. Something that clearly isn’t assisting any recovery.
For me, as Jane’s fear grows and the intensity builds, I found it an uncomfortable watch but not enough to switch off, this felt like a genuine reflection of someone struggling with their mental health. The key to this balanced, honest portrayal is Sally Hawkins’ performance. As you’d expect, she’s 100% commitment but we never laugh at her condition in a negative sense, in fact there’s a lot of humour between the darkness. Her portrayal encourages us to put ourselves in her shoes, mainly by highlighting how the people around her don’t fully understand her. There are incredibly sad moments because those who should be looking after her are taking advantage.
But Eternal Beauty, and consider the title, isn’t just the downside of her life, and nor does it claim to have the answers, it’s a unique story told in an equal measure of exquisiteness and kindness, the latter which is brought to life after she meets David Thewlis’ comparably unbalanced Mike. He’s a musician, he isn’t perfect and is also living his own chaos outside of the ‘normal’ world, but they connect, and a spark of life runs through Jane and lights up her days, for a time.
This change in her life is reflected in Craig Roberts shift in tone and style of the shots. While much of the film is dark and shadowy, and a constant sense of oppression of the mind is created by his directorial choices and colour schemes, once she lets the love given by Mike in, the images literally brighten up and sunshine bursts onto the screen. But with fleeting highs, there must also be lows, and being so emotionally charged after suffering with paranoid schizophrenia for most of her life, this means a huge drop to a dark place. From here, the film has more than enough to take you on the rest of its journey by itself, there’s numerous levels of depth from associated characters, especially her Mother’s (a somewhat terrifying Penelope Wilton) place in her and her two sisters lives, the latter portrayed by the always bloody excellent Alice Lowe and Billie Piper.
There’s no doubt Eternal Beauty is an unusual tale, but it’s told with charm, humanity and more than a sense of the strange but when was being normal ever interesting? That’s not to say they mock mental illness in any form, far from it, I found this to be a tender tale, complete with a beautiful, empathetic and devoted performance from Sally Hawkins, who excels and brings every ounce of life to an interesting and complex character.