Dir: Craig Roberts. Starring: Sally Hawkins, David Thewlis, Billie Piper, Penelope Wilton, Alice Lowe, Morfydd Clark. 15 cert, 94 mins
A Sally Hawkins performance feels like an invitation. The actor’s so present, so enthralling, that it’s as if she’s beckoned the audience to climb inside another self with her and have a look around. Her latest role, in Craig Roberts’s dark comedy Eternal Beauty, sees her play Jane, a woman living with paranoid schizophrenia. Hawkins doesn’t communicate mental illness through the usual cues – Jane is to be grasped and understood through small, mundane actions. It’s in the way she roughly tears off the crusts of her sandwich and throws them to the birds, taking half of the bread slice with it. Maybe that’s why she looks so thin, her hands swallowed up by the ends of her jumper. Jane is a woman of nervous giggles and laboured breathing, of nails digging into the space between her thumb and forefinger.
Voices drift out from the radio and fill her head with destructive thoughts. A telephone keeps ringing – the man on the other end of the line demands her devotion. But these are hallucinations. They are the ragged howls of her trauma, echoing forward from the day she was abandoned at the altar. She was young then (played in flashbacks by Morfydd Clark), naive and hopeful in equal measure. Now she wanders, ghost-like, between the houses of her heartless, self-pitying family. Her mother (Penelope Wilton) stuffs her mind with guilt. Her father (Robert Pugh) looks on, unmoved. One sister, Alice (Alice Lowe), is married to a man (Paul Hilton) with a puckered mouth, like he’s sucking an infinite lemon. The other, Nicola (Billie Piper), wears a perma-scowl. They treat Jane like a child. When she says her new medication makes her sleepy, her mother snaps back: “Well, you need to wake up.”
Roberts, who had a breakout role in Richard Ayoade’s Submarine (2010) and has since ventured into directing, marries personal cinephilia with a regard for past collaborators. There’s a stark sense of isolation here that harkens back to Ayoade’s work – scenes take place in rooms that are half-empty, but filled with long, hungry shadows. Yet the film, shot entirely on 35mm, has the look of muted Technicolour, like a faded Tinseltown fantasy. When Jane falls for Mike (David Thewlis), someone also chewed up and spat out by the mental health system, they become frolicking lovers in a French New Wave classic. The dramatic zooms and twirling violins have a touch of Hitchcock to them, but only in the sense that mental illness can sometimes feel like living inside your own personal horror film.
But Roberts isn’t interested in empty homage, nor is his film ever unfaithful to the psychological reality of its central character. Jane was inspired by one of his relatives; he wrote the film’s screenplay after realising that all the warmth and vibrancy of her inner life, which walked hand-in-hand with her illness, was its own kind of “superpower”. His film is funny, but in a particular way – like how the world seems laughable when your life is falling apart. Jane, at one point, feels compelled to get up and leave a dinner party because she doesn’t like the coriander on her carrots. A hypnosis recording, which sets the scene, offers the advice: “Don’t fight depression. Make friends with it.” There’s a nugget of truth there – as Eternal Beauty shows, we might not be able to vanquish our demons, but we can try to make peace with them. It’s a far more nuanced, evolved take on mental illness than most films are capable of.