A warm, compassionate, and at times lovingly humorous approach to mental illness, Eternal Beauty features another excellent performance from Academy Award nominee Sally Hawkins.
If you’re looking for a British actress to convey meek yet strong, unusual yet centred, not in control yet knowing exactly what she wants, then Sally Hawkins is your go-to person. And she excels as Jane, whose internal thoughts are the focus of Eternal Beauty, the second film from Welsh actor turned writer/director Craig Roberts.
Jane (Hawkins) lives with paranoid schizophrenia and this is her story – a story in which she is the hero, not the victim. Having been abandoned at the altar in her younger years, Jane’s mental health fluctuates; sometimes she can cope perfectly well in her own way, other times she needs to be taken care of until she’s back on her feet again.
While she has difficult relationships with her family, only some of the issues are down to her illness. Others are just as likely to be encountered in any number of families – overbearing mothers, sibling rivalries and jealousy, infidelity – none is peculiar to Jane’s family alone.
The narrative of Eternal Beauty jumps backwards and forwards in time to tell its story, from Jane’s present day situation to times as a younger adult. At first this takes a little effort to keep up with, but gradually everything falls into place for the viewer as we become accustomed to how Jane’s mind is working.
For the film is very much Jane’s perspective. Her state of mind and her lucidity is marked by an evolving colour scheme. Jane’s colour is blue; when she’s coping, her clothes, decor, little accents are a more vivid hue; when she’s struggling with things the colours become much more drab and muted. It certainly gives an impression of how the world seems to Jane. It’s not that her reality is wrong because it’s not like everyone else’s; her reality is just different from others and just as valid, which is recognised by her family and treated as such.
It doesn’t need to be said that Sally Hawkins captures Jane’s individuality and non-conformity beautifully. There’s really no-one better when it comes to ‘normalising’ eccentricity. She’s surrounded by a cast of characters who are also far from perfect, and who offer various levels of support throughout Jane’s ongoing journey. Worth singling out are Penelope Wilton as the domineering and selfish mother, and Alice Lowe as the most supportive and apparently ‘normal’ of Jane’s sisters. There’s also the additional pleasure of an appearance by David Thewlis as a dubious romantic interest.
There is potential for a little bit of confusion caused by the choice of actors playing the younger characters, I think. There’s no doubt that the casting was done on ability. Morfydd Clark (Saint Maud, The Personal History of David Copperfield) has already proven that she is a Good Actress but it took a while before I realised that she was playing a young Sally Hawkins; and Natalie O’Neill bears little resemblance to a young Billie Piper, Jane’s younger sister Nicola. Alice Lowe’s junior self Elysia Welch is the only one whose resemblance is clear.
That aside, Eternal Beauty is a film which takes a warm and compassionate approach to someone with mental illness. Director Craig Roberts has noted that he has personal experience of being around someone with an illness such as Jane’s, and the filmmakers worked closely with an expert to ensure that the portrayal of her schizophrenia was as accurate as possible.
Eternal Beauty presents a refreshing and empathetic look at mental illness in which the humour does not poke fun at the protagonist. When we laugh, it is with Jane, not at her.