Mental illness seems to be the zeitgeist in the film world right now. And fortunately it’s being explored in a wide range of genres. Paper Spiders looks at paranoid delusion through a mother-daughter/coming-of-age drama. Words on Bathroom Walls takes a YA view of a teen dealing with schizophrenia. And The Burnt Orange Heresy takes it into mystery-thriller territory. And now comes Eternal Beauty a dramedy about a woman living with paranoid schizophrenia. Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water, Maudie) plays Jane, a sometimes lovable odd-ball who lives on her own albeit with a host of voices in her head keeping her company. Her extremely dysfunctional family doesn’t really help her maintain any sense of sanity. But despite a number of bumps and detours in her road, she keeps a hopeful outlook (at least when she’s on her medication.) It’s a strange film and worth seeing especially because of Hawkins’s bravura performance.
Jane’s first descent into madness happens when she’s a young woman, just after she’s left at the altar. A stint in an asylum with some shock therapy allows her to return to the real world, but the voices are a regular part of her everyday life. Throughout the film, she hears the phone ring and talks with her missing groom about their love. And one day when she’s waiting to see her psychiatrist she meets a kindred spirit and has a romantic interlude. Mike (David Thewlis, The Harry Potter series, Guest of Honor) is an over-the-hill rock musician with his own mental issues. And it seems to be going really well for them until her sister, having just lost her rich boyfriend, mucks that up for her.
Her family is a big part of the film. The mother (Penelope Wilton, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) who pushed her to be a beauty queen even though she was too shy. The sister Nicola (Billie Piper, “Doctor Who”) who was a beauty queen. And Alice (Alice Lowe ) the other sister who is the only one in the family who seems to really be there for her. Her Dad Dennis (Robert Pugh) lurks around the edges, but it’s a women’s world. And there are moments that the three sisters do show some sisterly solidarity with each another despite their differences. One of the moments that tells you about them all is at Christmas, when Jane shows up at her parents’ with presents all beautifully wrapped and gives them to her family telling them that she’s tired of soap and socks. Then she takes them back, unwraps them, oohs and ahhhs, and hands them the receipts expecting them to pay her back.
Eternal Beauty is beautifully shot and the direction is subtle. The story is mainly a character study, a month or two in Jane’s life, with flashbacks to her younger life. Jane is definitely crazy, but you neither feel sorry for her nor comfortable with her. The film is funny at times and very sad, too. And Sally Hawkins inhabits this fragile creature with such a buoyant spirit that you can’t look away. It’s hard to say in this abnormal year who will be up for an Oscar, but I could see this performance getting Hawkins a nod. See it.