Unpeeling the layers of Joanna Hogg’s latest ghost story is an exercise in quiet catharsis. As one character learns about her mother's memories of World War II, Anna McKibbin interviews her father about his experience of the Troubles – exploring what it means to grieve the person your parent was, the person they never were to you, and the horrible futility of that grief.
About halfway through Joanna Hogg’s subdued masterpiece The Eternal Daughter, Rosalind (Tilda Swinton) admits to her earnest, overbearing daughter Julie (also Tilda Swinton), that the dining room where they are eating was also where she first heard of her older brother’s death during World War II. The news strikes Julie in the gut, leaving her gasping, stretching out to find the right words and settling for “I’m so sorry” and “I didn’t know”. Rosalind looks on, bemused. “We’re here now, and that was then,” she points out, firmly.
Joanna Hogg’s films are often contained in a few finite days or weeks. The Eternal Daughter is a return to form; a small, contained story, that takes place over a “bad family holiday” (in the vein of her earlier films Unrelated and Archipelago.) Hogg’s skill lies in stretching small interactions until they fill the screen, reaching back into the past to lend innocuous moments mythic proportions. This quiet stumbling towards frustrated recognition is technically slight, but emotionally all-encompassing.
A university project from a few years ago prompted me to reach out to my Dad and see if he would share his experience of growing up in Belfast during the Troubles. In the wake of our conversation, I was cocooned in the huge, heavy net of loss he had grown accustomed to, unsure whether I should, or could, offload it. Years later, when I saw this interaction between Julie and Rosalind in The Eternal Daughter, I felt Hogg’s observations rearrange my family history around a set of immutable truths, tempering my memories with Julie’s embarrassing emotion.
To better understand—or at least better position myself in the film’s web of grief—I reached out to my Dad again and asked him a few questions.
Anna McKibbin: How old were you when the Troubles started?
Peter McKibbin: So 1969… I was 16.
When did it sink in that this was a long-term thing that wasn’t going to die down?
By the time I got to Queens [University], it was clear that this was serious stuff. In certain parts of the city there was a curfew, but you wouldn’t go out anyway because you could hear gunshots go off, particularly at night. You just didn’t go out to Belfast at night, let’s put it that way.
I know you lost a very close friend during that time, what happened? What do you remember?
John Donaldson was a friend I met at Queens. He was in the year below me, or maybe the same year, but for some reason we connected. He came along to our church. We formed a friendship, quite a warm friendship of mutual encouragement.
I could be wrong, but I think he developed a relationship with a girl. They became friends and got together… He was given a job one day to deliver witness summons to a police station in AndersonsTown in West Belfast. He delivered it on motorbike, and as he left he was followed by a van. He pulled up at traffic lights and guns appeared and he was shot multiple times and killed. And then the van drove on and he was left.
Someone called and said, “Have you heard on the news? I think John Donaldson has been shot dead in West Belfast.” I went to his parents’ house and knocked on the door. I felt like a proper eejit, but I said, “Look, I heard on the radio and I’m a bit devastated.” They were speechless and invited me in. We talked. I think it was the right thing to do. No one’s been arrested.
Bill (Joseph Mydell) is the warm hotel caretaker in The Eternal Daughter, capable of absorbing and negotiating the grief of both Swintons due to the loss of his own wife. Both Julie and Rosalind pour their hurt onto him, tracing the fault line widening between them as the years wear on. At one point Julie explains to Bill, “It’s really difficult for me to think of her being sad.”
An expression both profound and childlike, it binds these characters together, nailed to this time and place. The film is grappling with this statement, arguing that there is something worthwhile in striving to understand one another, even if the darker aspects of our histories need to be wrestled into the light.
For a few days, every interaction between mother and daughter is charged in the thick sadness of the setting, bathed in the fog of the English countryside. They are all (including the prickly hotel receptionist) subject to one another’s loss, momentarily steeped in their shared grief.
I know you struggle to do this, but if you had to summarise your relationship to Northern Ireland, what would it be?
It’s a bit of a love-hate relationship. It’s given me a whole lot of positive experiences, I have some good friends here. When I do see them and we begin to reminisce I realise that, yes, there is something there.
I find some of the narrowness of thinking difficult to grasp. Northern Ireland’s not the centre of the Earth, it’s a quiet backwater in the context of the UK, but it’s been home. It’s been a good home.
Hogg’s shot composition is stark and simple, reminiscent of Yasujirō Ozu or Jonathan Demme in how it settles on faces and bodies for unbroken stretches, concerned with the minutiae of characters’ physicality. Hogg’s style, alongside the logistical challenge of shooting Swinton as two characters, lends itself to conversations captured in a stream of shot-reverse-shots. The two are isolated to their own frames until the end, when they are shown together.
It is a nifty trick, and a heady commentary on the parent-child relationship. We rarely have the means or desire to know the people who raise us while they are still with us. Hogg undercuts the shot of mother and daughter together with a successive shot where Rosalind has disappeared mid-conversation. The film dissolves into this ominous ending, with reality unnervingly upended, dissipating into something ephemeral. The Eternal Daughter is smart enough to never spell out the mysteries contained. Instead, the film lets the image of Julie, alone at a dinner table and wracked by sobs over a mother who was barely there, blanket everything in its inescapable sadness.
Time dulls the clarity of memory, but it also throws the person we once knew into unmarked territory, scrambling them across timelines. Our mothers and fathers are forced to syphon off their more complex inner-workings to assume a smoother, child-friendly performance. Death robs us of the conversations that could untangle this interiority.
Do you have any questions for me about the piece?
What is the film about?
It’s about a mum and a daughter who go on a holiday to somewhere potentially haunted. The piece was inspired by this scene where the mum is telling her about the war—you know what? I will just send you the DVD and you can watch it. It will all make sense.
OK! I don’t really understand, but I will leave it in your hands!