Like most of us Craig Roberts, 29, recognises that this is a distinctly odd year. Fortunately the Welsh writer-director didn’t set any stock by the word “normal” in the first place. “I mean there is no normal, really,” says Roberts in the soft-but-speedy Caerphilly tones that helped make his breakout role, in Richard Ayoade’s 2010 film Submarine, so distinctive. “It doesn’t make any sense to me. I think it’s ridiculous.” His new film, Eternal Beauty, backs this up with the poignant, punchily-funny story of Jane (played superbly by Sally Hawkins), a woman living with paranoid schizophrenia.
It’s a difficult line to tread tastefully. It’s a challenging film. But there is so much to love in Eternal Beauty, which shares some of the tropes of Submarine (Ayoade consulted on the script, plus the vivid colour palette and 35mm film ring familiar) but breaks new ground.
Young Jane (Morfydd Clark), a sweet soul, is left at the altar on her wedding day and later sectioned, as her life folds inwards; the film then jumps forward to Jane as an adult, mostly self-sufficient, joining her dour family (dad Robert Pugh, mum Penelope Wilton, sisters Alice Lowe and the scene-stealing Billie Piper) for Christmas. She’s bought her own pricey presents, and hands them all receipts. In between a lot of awfulness, she has a wonderful time. “Do you feel normal?” she asks her doctor at one point. “How borin’!”
Still, it’s not entirely easy viewing. “It’s a headache,” laughs Roberts, speaking to me from the airy bedroom of his Stoke Newington home, a very credible bookcase (and one very dead house plant) behind him and his new puppy, Mr Zazu, scratching at the door. “But one thing I’m happy with is the humour, and that we kept that. I hold onto the idea that people can be funny even though they’re going through things. Too many times I’ve seen movies that explore mental health, and either it’s someone possessed by a demon, or running down a corridor losing their minds, and that really, really wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
The fact that his central character is based on a person with whom he had a close childhood relationship — Roberts won’t say who, except that the film is for “the real Calamity Jane” — helped. “For most of my childhood growing up with this person I didn’t really realise what was going on, or what she was fighting with, or having to deal with. And I had this realisation that she had this incredible challenge — and this power of sorts,” he says. “The person this is based on is incredibly funny, and that’s because of her looking glass, really.” He means her singular view of the world. “She’s just constantly funny. And my family have, you know, built a way to deal with it.”
Roberts is fluent in all the funny to be found in family drama. “I’m not Charlie Brooker, I’m not going to come up with ideas that will predict the future,” he says. “I’m very much focused on things I’ve experienced.” Hawkins, who played his mum in Submarine, understood the humour immediately. “It was only her that really could do it,” he says. “I didn’t want to make the movie without her. It would have been something else and awful. I knew she would steer the whole thing.”
He’s a young director — but then again, he was a young child actor. As a teenager, he was cast in the CBBC series Tracy Beaker, while the casting agency which organised his weekly improvisation workshop in Cardiff put him forward for Submarine. “At that point I didn’t know Ben Stiller was executive producing it, or that [the Arctic Monkeys lead singer] Alex Turner would do the soundtrack. I also wasn’t cool enough to know how cool these people were at that point. And I’m glad I didn’t, because I would have been star struck.”
That’s hard to buy: Roberts reels off too many indie titles he considers formative to suggest that his cultural radar was ever on the blink: Ingmar Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly; Three Colours Blue; Punch-Drunk Love; A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. It was, he says, still a very normal childhood; summer spent playing football with friends, afternoons spent outdoors, or playing Xbox at home. But even then his idols were directors, not actors: Paul Thomas Anderson, David Lynch, Charlie Kaufman. Was acting not fulfilling? “[It] was only taking me so far in exploring stuff,” he says. “And I was playing a lot of the same roles. And that’s absolutely fine, that’s what you’re hired for really, as a puppet of sorts, to come in and play that certain role. I was just doing a lot of that.”
Roberts has waited most of this year for the delayed general release of his second film (he worried his 2015 debut, Just Jim, would “go out and be the end of my career”). He’s spent lockdown instead in London, binge-watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians (yes, really), worrying about his mum, Alison, a key worker at a dementia care home near Caerphilly, and getting to know Mr Zazu, a five-month-old Havanese Terrier. He’s a “therapy dog, particularly good for people who have anxiety”. Anxiety is a “very good friend of mine, and it hangs around a lot”, says Roberts. Eternal Beauty “felt like the right time of my life to explore that, and explore how we should be feeling every day. What is the normal for every day? I don’t think we should put the pressure on ourselves to be happy, to exist in this false state all the time, it feels like we need to take the good days and really enjoy those, and when you have bad days? It’s 100 per cent fine.”
Eternal Beauty is in cinemas from Friday