Perhaps the sequence that best represents Craig Roberts‘s debut, Eternal Beauty is when June (Sally Hawkins) sits alone at a Halloween party dressed as a cowgirl, ignored by everyone around her. It’s an image that’s infantile, a child thrown aside to cry over a fallen birthday cake at a class party, but this time, the schoolchildren are all grown up. Alienated in a room surrounded by her sisters and their friends, she is tossed aside, because no one wants to be associated with the “crazy girl.” June tells a little boy at the party that they are surrounded by “Frankensteins,” or people who aren’t really alive. On the surface, this could be the voices June hears out of nowhere when she isn’t heavily medicated, but maybe that Frankenstein has been her. Moving as if awoken from the dead, hardly interacting with the world… sounds like the opening of our overly-medicated protagonist drifting through the sidewalks hardly able to see the world.
The reason June sees the world this way is because she suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Mental illness took over when she was dumped on her wedding day years before, and she’s never quite recovered. After years in and out of psychiatric hospitals, she’s now filled with mood-stabilizing drugs and lacks purpose. When the doctors up the dose again, she throws in the towel and refuses to swallow the handfuls of pills. June sees the life she’s been given through a new childlike wonder, as if she has been reborn. Her world is filled with sound- not only that of a beautifully swelling score, but also of the voices and phantom sounds she hears. It’s all a timeless setting, with quirky sets and pastels that evoke a bygone era, one where we may find Sally Hawkins by the side of the road dressed quite like Paddington Bear.
The past is always present, no matter how things may have changed. It is not a seated, static presence, but a floating one, the kind that reawakens at the lower moments in life. The flashbacks are gorgeously hanging, with June and her sisters in the past gently drifting through their lives as if they are onlookers to their own pain. June slumps against a wall, left at the altar, and begging for it all to go back as it was over the phone. It never quite goes back to how it was before. The experience scars her, and though she may retrace her steps from immediately after, June from that moment doesn’t have the life experience or the beginning of learning to cope she has in the future. Past June is scared, and lets the voices take her instead of coexisting. She isn’t alone in the change of outlook, her whole family is crumbling alongside. “Did June ever tell you I used to be a beauty queen?” says her dejected sister, played by a bitingly wit-filled Billie Piper. This is a family where they have all lost their dreams, and even these dreams built by stepping on each other haven’t been able to hold on.
“You need to wake up,” June’s mother (Penelope Wilton) says. “What if I don’t want to,” June responds. The fact is, she is as awake as she’s been in years. The medication puts her to sleep, she is a groggy drifter who can barely think for herself. Sure, it softens every blow, but it blocks the good out too. Days come alive when she is with Mike (David Thewlis) as a brief but happy couple. They are comfortable together, and in the world, and shoulders grow less tense and eyes begin to open as they dance through life until family messes it all up again. For the first time since her would-be wedding day, June is fully alive without anything stopping her. Sure, the voices are louder than ever, and the creeping sadness still lingers, but for once it is okay to be sad.
Over the radio, a talk show plays. It’s asking those who are suicidal why they don’t go through with it. They ask for callers, and say “tell me, why are you killing yourself.” June screams to turn it off, and we are flashed back to the past again. We see her go through some sort of electroshock treatment, meant to try and make her brain normal. The flashbacks have her dragged out of the house screaming by doctors, as her family sits quietly and watches TV, no longer really caring. It’s a callout here to how passive we are, so many ignoring others’ lives as to not inconvenience our own. It’s also indicative of how used to suicide we have become. We see June hold a pair of scissors in bed, and we think these are going to be used in harming herself, as she plays with them in the dark while eerie music rises. Instead, they are to cut the cord of a phone, one that symbolizes echoes of the past, a phone call from a runaway ex-lover not yet hung up until now. The words of that call have made up so many of the voices in June’s head, and it seems to calm the rest when the achin, pointed memory sound drowns itself out.
It all sounds sad, but it’s more reassuring than that. It’s like a hand in the shoulder, whispering that it may not all be okay, but that’s just the way the world works, and to make what it gives us, and run with it. Family is messy, feelings are messy, and our minds are incredibly complicated even when they work just as the doctor ordered. This is a film that tells you sometimes it’s okay to stop and stare at a wall. Sometimes it’s okay to curl up beneath the furniture to cry. It’s about losing yourself, forgetting exactly how we dealt with all of this the last time, and trying again.
So this brings the question, and the film’s closing: “are you happy?” Maybe this happiness isn’t a goal that can be attained. At a certain point, sometimes ‘just okay’ is the best you can get. The beauty of life is the eternal kind, one that will wait for you to be in the right place to see it. And that waiting is where June has been for years. Briefly alive to see it, she takes each moment for all that it is, relishing just how much capacity she has to feel. Sometimes we need a film to sit us down, and tell us it’s okay to feel. And that’s exactly what Eternal Beauty does.