Eternal Beauty is the second feature from Craig Roberts, following up 2015’s Just Jim, a slick but lowkey drama about small-town life and popularity. Roberts came into the public eye through his work as a child actor on British TV and arguably broke out in Submarine, Richard Ayoade’s 2010 drama about a Welsh schoolboy that set the stage for a lot of Roberts’ own filmmaking tendencies. While Just Jim was far from a groundbreaking work, it showed a lot of potential that I hoped to see evolve as Craig Roberts matured as a filmmaker. Eternal Beauty is in this way a frustrating case because it without question does showcase a development as a filmmaker, but in service of a story that I’m not sure was looking for such a quirky, expressionist touch.
Eternal Beauty is the story of Jane (Sally Hawkins), a woman with schizophrenia who is still reeling from having been dumped at the altar years ago. This part of her life (where she is played by Morffyd Clark) feels almost like a different world and while we’re only given glimpses of it, the way the two bleed into one another is fascinating and almost horror movie-like. Jane’s story is centred around her continued search for genuine human connection, not only in the romantic sense but through her well intentioned but misguided attempts to relate to her family despite their lives having turned out so different.
This simple premise keeps the film afloat though largely on the back of Sally Hawkins’ performance which, while not grounded in any clear reality, is incredibly expressive and commands the emotion of almost every scene, especially compared to a far more muted supporting cast. My fear going into this, like most films attempting to represent mental illness, was one of representation and exploitation – mainly when it became clear that like a lot of films about schizophrenia, this was going to rely heavily on a cinematic idea of hallucinations. While I can’t say that this is necessarily good representation of schizophrenia, I think it is the definition of well-intentioned. More than anything, its good ideas feel almost held back by an adherence to formalized tropes in schizophrenia’s representation on screen at points where a fresher approach could have been really effective. To the film’s credit however, Jane is not exclusively defined by her mental illness, though its effect on her life is not downplayed. She is funny, kind, and has passions and an internality often not provided to schizophrenic characters, though too regularly still portrayed through the same frameworks.
Though it bounces between plotlines and ideas at an almost breakneck pace, this film is ultimately about the sacrifices and compromises of family and when that is in its sights, the film is at its most effective, though still not without fault. Its representation of adult family gatherings as comically stilted and awkward is where it finds most genuinely felt drama and reflects most clearly Craig Roberts’ potential as a filmmaker, finding an almost Lynchian drama in a different kind of mundane. Almost by virtue of numbers, Roberts is one of the most prolific working Welsh filmmakers and it is interesting to see that very space mined for drama.
I don’t know that Eternal Beauty is a great film and there is an argument to be made that it leans into exploitation, turning the reality of schizophrenia not into horror as is common but attempting to tie it to a kind of unpredictable quirkiness. However, it is defined by a very firm belief in a fundamental humanity beyond that, and when it allows itself to be a quiet film about a woman who struggles to connect to people, it feels most worthwhile.