There’s always something strangely urgent about Tilda Swinton’s performances; she has a way of conveying absolute directness, like there’s absolutely nothing between our eyes and her characters’ souls. When she weeps, in Joanna Hogg’s elegant ghost story “The Eternal Daughter,” it’s devastating; when she smiles, which is rare in this film, it seems like hope personified.
In Hogg’s film, Swinton pulls off a rare trick with such conviction that you find yourself forgetting she’s doing it: playing the two leading roles in the film herself. She’s both Julie, a middle-aged filmmaker struggling to write a screenplay, and Julie’s mother Rosalind, a reserved, elderly woman looking back on her life. The two women, along with Julie’s dog Louis, have traveled together to a remote hotel that was once a stately private home — one that, we soon learn, is part of the family’s past. Strange noises haunt Julie’s sleep, shadowy figures appear at windows, and even Louis seems to sense that something here is off.
Hogg handles the dual casting with little fuss; the two characters rarely share a screen. And what could seem like a stunt is actually eerily moving: You see in Julie a mirror of Rosalind, and in Rosalind a shadow of Julie, in a way that you wouldn’t if two actors were playing the roles. And what unfolds quietly, in a setting worthy of a spooky Henry James tale, is an often heartbreaking story of a mother and daughter; two women joined once literally and now figuratively. Julie fusses over her mother, trying to make Rosalind happy, trying to understand her mother as she watches time slipping away. At one point, a frail-looking Rosalind say she doesn’t want any dinner; Julie, who had been looking forward to eating, immediately echoes her: “I don’t have any hunger if you’re not hungry,” she says, a desperate tone to her voice. They are at once two women and one woman, a very specific pair and simultaneously every mother and daughter, and Swinton beautifully shades each of them, finding a lifetime of weariness in Rosalind, a wistful searching in Julie, who seems younger in her mother’s presence.
Though Rosalind and Julie aren’t entirely alone at the hotel — there’s an amusingly surly receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davies) and a kind longtime caretaker (Joseph Mydell) — much of “The Eternal Daughter” is simply Swinton, exploring her two universal characters in the Gothic atmosphere Hogg masterfully creates, with ever-present fog swirling around the house and the strangely green-lit hallways seeming to hold secrets. You watch it rapt, leaning in, wanting to know more; you leave it wondering if that shadow at the window was, maybe, yourself.