Eternal Beauty

UK (2019) Dir. Craig Roberts   

“There is no such thing as happiness, just moments of not being depressed!”

Mental health is a serious condition that cannot be pigeon holed to one set of symptoms or its effect on people. As someone on the Autism spectrum, I know whereof I speak as some of the issues are related to Autism. Paranoid schizophrenia is a condition many people think they know about but actually don’t.

Jane (Sally Hawkins), suffers from paranoid schizophrenia following a break down after being stood up at the altar in her 20s, resulting in a stint in hospital. Now living a semi-independent life in a small house, Jane still has the odd episode and hears voices, but is generally harmless, though her family don’t seem to understand her. The only person Jane can rely on is sister Alice (Alice Lowe) who has been outcast by their mother Vivian (Penelope Wilton).

But as Jane starts to see the world through a foggy haze she decides to stop taking her medication, at the same she meets Mike (David Thewlis) an aspiring musician also with mental health issues. Jane’s family don’t approve of this union, with gold-digger sister Nicola (Billie Piper) trying to split them up, causing another breakdown for Jane but unlike her crumbling family, she is stronger than they think.

It is always a risk to make a film about health conditions. People will inevitably question the motives for doing it, the veracity of the material, and the research gone into it and jump to certain conclusions long before they have even seen the film. Fortunately, actor turned director Craig Roberts has made this film based on the personal experience of someone in his own family.

Eternal Beauty is a film that avoids stigmatising mental health and even with occasional moments of black comedy, doesn’t exploit it to mock either. Instead, Roberts is asking for understanding of people affected by these issues, and showing Jane’s condition in a way it hasn’t before. By doing this, we are shown that people like Jane may “suffer” for wanting a better term but that doesn’t mean we should write them off or undermine how they are and wanting they are capable of as human beings.

What is the obvious trigger for concern are the words “paranoid” and “schizophrenia”, the latter perhaps the more potent due to the negative connotations applied to it as a dangerous condition. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t – Jane at one point in the film points out what she considered the difference between paranoid and “regular” schizophrenia in a characteristically quirky yet perfectly sensible and logical manner.  

Certainly, it might take a while for some viewers to realise what Roberts is doing with this film, opting for a decidedly offbeat and whimsical presentation that turns the view through Jane’s eyes into a visual spectacle for us to become immersed in. Jane may look like a bedraggled pixie and her head is full of intrusive voices, including the ex who dumped her, but her mind is far sharper than most, possessing a sense of logic that actually holds up to scrutiny.

One early scene has Jane arrive at the family home with Christmas presents but they are not for the family, they are for Jane which she bought herself because she is tired of the same old socks and soap gifts they get her every year. So, she gives them the receipts and expects the money back for the gifts she then opens and pretends were from them. Admit it, how much would you like to buy yourself a gift with the money from someone who gets you naff things every year?

Flashbacks reveal young Jane (Morfydd Clark) was once a beauty queen contestant until she froze at the pageant, which Nicola then replaced her in and won. Vivian is shown to be a bit of a witch with no love for Jane or Alice, the only information we get about that hostile relationship. Nicola has grown up thinking she is God’s gift to men but a lazy one, even mimicking Jane’s symptoms to get disability benefits.

Roberts is careful to ensure we recognise Nicola’s actions as poor rather than this being a cause to demean Jane, who may have deliberately misled her sister during this ruse with false symptoms – at least until Jane stops taking her medication. But, the issue remains Jane’s words aren’t seen as credible so when she tells Alice her husband is having an affair it is dismissed; conversely when Mike says Jane is a better singer than Celine Dion, she believes it, but only because it boosts her self-esteem.

Adopting a fanciful filming style that uses the camera over visual effects, Roberts creates a surreal world in which everything seems alive therefore feels very real. One might see touches of Michel Gondry and Jean-Pierre Jeunet via this technique with a palpable nod to the masters of pre-CGI cinema. The period appears to be the 1990s so the aesthetic has a faint nostalgic air to it, except for the fixed colours attached to the main characters – Jane wears blue, Alice red and Vivian black – which deliberately stand out.

Sally Hawkins must be a candidate for national treasure status by now, carrying this film with another chameleon like performance as Jane. Hawkins has an uncanny ability to look just like she does but completely transform herself into the character. In the same way we believed she was deaf in The Shape Of Water, we are totally convinced she is paranoid schizophrenic here, from her physical quirks to her emotional reactions.

Eternal Beauty is not just about her performance though – it is an audacious and bold film that lays bare facts about mental health and shows us that we can no longer be ignorant about them. Sensitive, empathetic, and informative, Roberts opens the door to the idea of understanding paranoid schizophrenia in a way nobody has before in this stunning debut.

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