When we hear the word ‘schizophrenia’, we may think of crazed killers or of squalid institutions in which wriggling madmen are tortured into compliance by maniacal doctors. Craig Roberts’ Eternal Beauty, a lively, textured and personal story of the origins and experience of paranoid schizophrenia, is a wonderful corrective to such misconceptions.
Jilted at the altar, Jane develops a debilitating mental health condition which turns her already dysfunctional family life upside down. Eternal Beauty picks up Jane’s life many years later, and shows how a lifetime of mental illness has affected her daily life, her family, and her sense of reality.
Perhaps due to the broader lack of understanding that still, regrettably, surrounds mental distress, our stories about this taboo area tend to be pretty narrowly constrained into familiar – not to say well-worn – forms. Sensationalism, trivialisation, sentimentality; violence, self-harm, screaming. Eternal Beauty, whilst it is not entirely devoid of cliché, provides a much-needed, deeply human alternative to the noisy and tragic narratives about hallucinatory derangement, terror, and victimisation that we may have come to expect from films about madness.
There are moments of great sadness and bitter conflict, yes, but there are also plenty of moments of humour, both cheeky and macabre, and moments of great tenderness between Jane and her sisters. Overall, the film sympathetically and compassionately evokes Jane’s reality in all of its depth, dignity, and, yes, its weirdness. To say that Eternal Beauty avoids the more lurid stylistic commonplaces associated with the subject matter – think Polanski’s Repulsion or Aronofsky’s π – is not, however, to say that it is in any way undramatic or flat.
The movie brims with memorable and well-judged visual flourishes, thanks not least to its luscious use of colour and its bright, unconventional cinematography. The score, likewise, is haunting, the songs powerful. Perhaps its greatest asset, though, is the uniformly excellent cast. Sally Hawkins is, as ever, utterly luminous. Jane is fragile and feisty, unpredictable yet gentle, and Hawkins delivers a note-perfect performance of great range and sensitivity. Morfydd Clark plays Jane in her younger days, and though she has less time on-screen she does just as magnificent a job conjuring the lost, hurt confusion of Jane’s condition.
The supporting ensemble are also tremendous. Billie Piper, Alice Lowe, and David Thewlis, in particular, shine as Jane’s sisters and suitor, and Penelope Wilton and Bob Pugh are remarkable as Jane’s brittle, overbearing mother and distant, hapless dad. A special mention, too, should be given to Paul Hilton’s marvellously watchable mouth.