Portraits of complex women are a strong theme of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Three films in particular aim to explore the depths of womanhood through complicated familial relationships. Frances O’Connor’s “Emily” takes liberal creative license with the life of Emily Brontë and her complicated relationship with her sister Charlotte; Lila Neugebauer’s “Causeway” follows a wounded soldier as she returns home—and to her neglectful mother—and tries to put her life back in order; Joanna Hogg’s “The Eternal Daughter” uses gothic horror to examine the way memories can haunt us like ghosts as a mother and daughter visit a stately manor once owned by a family member.
True biographical information about Wuthering Heights author Emily Brontë is notoriously sparse. Much of what has been written about her comes from the point of view of her sister, and fellow writer, Charlotte, author of Jane Eyre. Given the unknowability of the true nature of Emily, writer/director Frances O’Connor injects her history with pure conjecture in her messy feature film debut entitled “Emily,” starring Emma Mackey in the title role.
On principle, this take on the mysterious literary figure isn’t necessarily bad. Unfortunately O’Connor’s execution is. While there's some fire under Mackey’s sullen expression, much of her direction seems to have been to make her eyes as wide as possible and to keep her mouth always in a somber pout. Worse, O’Connor anchors Emily’s artistic coming-of-age to a rote romance with a hunky curate who also tutors her in French. Sure, we’re in the age of “insert historical figure here who f*cks” style of storytelling, but plays here more like bad fan fiction, especially when compared with the depths of human emotion Emily’s masterwork reaches.
Along with saddling her with a truly run-of-the-mill bodice ripping bad romance, O’Connor throws both Charlotte, and especially Anne, out with the bath water. Every chance the film gets, Charlotte is pitted artistically—and at one point, romantically—against her sister. While Anne is relegated to about three or four scenes, forever the forgotten Brontë. (Side note: do read her novel Agnes Grey if you ever get a chance.) Their brother Branwell fares much better, and this is perhaps the most you’ll ever see of him in a film about the Brontës. O’Connor seems to suggest the incest themes found in Wuthering Heights may have a familial root.
O’Connor's debut is ambitious for sure, but with imagery ripped from countless better period set films, an overbearing score from Abel Korzeniowski, and an outdated way of pitting women against each other, I could only think that Emily’s legacy deserved better than this.
Continuing this theme comes director Lila Neugebauer’s long delayed debut feature film “Causeway," which serves as a return to form for star Jennifer Lawrence, who cut her teeth on similar intimate character studies like “Winter’s Bone.” While the script, which has three credited writers (Otessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel, and Elizabeth Sanders), sometimes feels a bit thin, the drama works mostly due to the strong performances from Lawrence, Linda Emond, and Brian Tyree Henry (who has long established himself as one of the best character actors of his generation)
Lawrence plays Lynsey, a veteran of the US Army Corps of Engineers whose body and brain were injured by an EID incident in Afghanistan. The film takes its time, introducing us to Lynsey just at the start of her rehabilitation. An almost silent Lawrence plays her so small, holding her fragile body close, as she learns how to control her movements and her mind once again. Jayne Houdyshell is excellent in a small, but vital role as her live-in rehabilitation aid.
After her release from the rehabilitation center, Lynsey returns to her home in New Orleans, where her neglectful mother (Emond) forgets to pick her up from the bus, often comes home so late at night they can barely share a word together, and gives her a truck that’s been left to its own devices so long it barely runs. When Lynsey takes it in for repairs she meets a mechanic named James (Henry), whose own past traumas are slowly revealed as the two become friends.
Brian Tyree Henry is simply electric. His easy charm fills the screen and the cadence with which he talks often takes you off-guard. An unexpected pause here, a rolling of words together there. Both Lynsey and James' stories can border on cliché, and their tenuous connection together probably doesn’t hold up to close inspection. But both actors are able to add nuance with their body language and natural chemistry that draws you in and makes you believe them.
Following her semi-autobiographical films “The Souvenir” and "The Souvenir Part II," writer/director Joanna Hogg returns with another incredibly personal film about creativity. With “The Eternal Daughter,” Hogg uses gothic horror elements to explore the prickly relationships even the closest mother and daughter share in life and after death. How their lives become intertwined in shared memories, and also in memories shared.
One cold wintry night, a small white cab makes its way up a foggy country road to a large manor. Filmmaker Julie and her mother Rosalind (a marvelous Tilda Swinton in dual roles) have arrived for a retreat. Julie is working on a film about her mother, who once stayed in the estate when it belonged to her aunt when she was a child during WWII. Details of her mother’s life, and Julie’s relationship with her are revealed slowly through natural conversations the two have during their stay.
There is something eerie about the manor itself. The two seem to be its only inhabitants, save a sullen receptionist and a kindly widowed groundskeeper. Julie constantly hears unnerving sounds: the banging of an unseen window upstairs; winds howl through the trees that surround the hotel; animals cry in the far-off distance. Julie cannot focus on her work, cannot shake the sense that something is wrong.
Hogg films both Swintons mostly in medium and close-up shots, always in conversation with herself, but not herself. A score reminiscent of those flute and violin-heavy Hammer Horror films of yore heightens the supernatural tension, as does Hogg’s cramped framing of the ancient manor.
“That’s what rooms do, they hold these stories,” Rosalind shares with Julie after a melancholy memory resurfaces while they talk over dinner. It’s memories that are the real ghosts, lingering not only in our minds, but in the places they were made. They come to life again when we revisit, physically, or just in our minds. For Julie, and perhaps for Hogg, these ghosts manifest in the creative process as she “trespasses” on her mother’s memories.
Like the best of the classic gothic ghost stories, “The Eternal Daughter” leaves you unsettled and unsure of what really is happening. Even as the fog lifts and the sun comes out, complete clarity remains elusive. As it should.