Eileen (2023, dir. William Oldroyd)

by | Dec 2, 2023

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 98 mins

UK Distributor: Universal Pictures

UK Release Date: 1 December 2023

WHO’S IN EILEEN?

Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway, Shea Whigham, Marin Ireland, Owen Teague, Jefferson White, Tonye Patano, Siobhan Fallon Hogan

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

William Oldroyd (director, producer), Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh (writers, producers), Stefanie Azpiazu, Anthony Bregman, Peter Cron and Bavand Karim (producers), Richard Reed Parry (composer), Ari Wegner (cinematographer), Nick Emerson (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In 1960s Boston, a young woman (McKenzie) is drawn to a beautiful new colleague (Hathaway)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON EILEEN?

While Florence Pugh saw her career skyrocket after the release of Lady Macbeth, its director William Oldroyd has surprisingly not been as quick to take advantage of his success. Only now, seven years after the debut of his first feature, has Oldroyd returned to filmmaking, with an adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel Eileen that, much like Lady Macbeth, utilises its eerie atmosphere for a (figuratively and literally) chilling tale of desire and empowerment.

Having said that, though, its novelistic tendencies and a somewhat light narrative do not render it as instantly impressive as Oldroyd’s previous film, despite the fact that there are some truly eerie moments which come reasonably close to its quality.

Set in 1960s Boston, the titular Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) is a young woman who leads an uneventful and lonely life, working a menial clerk job at the local juvenile prison. To make matters more difficult, she is the sole caretaker of her alcoholic ex-cop father Jim (Shea Whigham), who repays her with verbal and emotional abuse that has taken a significant toll on her confidence. One day, she meets the prison’s new psychiatrist Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), a beautiful, blonde and boldly charismatic woman whom Eileen is instantly fascinated by, and she quickly becomes closer to her fresh colleague. However, things suddenly take a much darker turn when Eileen is drawn into a disturbing plot, forcing her to question everything she knows about herself and her unsubtle attraction to Rebecca.

With Oldroyd directing from a script co-written by Moshfegh and her husband Luke Goebel (who also worked together on the screenplay for last year’s Causeway), Eileen is certainly a film that, on a technical aspect, has a level of ambition. The direction is solid, as Oldroyd manages to build a stable sense of unease as the film progresses, with a strong focus on the psychological journey of its titular character. From the beginning, Eileen seems like a character that has a lot of issues on her mind, mostly due to the volatile treatment she receives from almost everyone in her life, from her abusive father to her catty co-workers. The director does not shy away from how hurtful their presence can be to this person, and it’s enough to certainly feel a level of empathy and even frustration for her.

However, as Oldroyd gently pulls the viewer along her journey, we see a number of layers to this person, including her borderline obsession with Anne Hathaway’s Rebecca, who herself appears to be a visual reference to the famous “Hitchcock Blonde” motif, with the Oscar-winning actor quite effectively bringing the same aura of mystery and charisma as the likes of Janet Leigh or Kim Novak. There is also a vague hint toward a suppressed sexuality, as she openly masturbates to erotic fantasies about being accosted by a handsome prison security guard, but dumps a fistful of snow on her crotch at another point of feminine desire. The character’s development is neatly shown through a mixture of Oldroyd’s direction, some chilly cinematography by Ari Wegner (who also provided the visuals on Lady Macbeth), and an exemplary lead turn by Thomasin McKenzie whose wide-eyed screen presence is perfect for a character like Eileen.

Where the film is less stable is in how the writers ultimately present the darker aspects of their story. Moshfegh, whose original prose was not just her debut novel but also shortlisted for multiple awards, seems to have taken a more literal approach to her own adaptation, and as a result there are many scenes in the movie, particularly during the third act, that feel as though they would play much better in written format than in a more visual medium. There are long, descriptive monologues that go into heavy detail about certain people’s thoughts and motivations, which are very well-performed and shot intensely, but tend to feel long-winded since the visual components, as stunning as they are, do not always support the heftiness of the dialogue. Paired with the fact that it is also a narrative that is fairly light on dramatic events until that third-act turn, it can often make the film feel like a collection of recited paragraphs rather than a truly engaging cinematic experience.

So, it’s obvious that Eileen isn’t quite on the same level as Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth (though I realise that was a tall order anyway, given how it was a truly outstanding debut for the filmmaker). However, that isn’t necessarily down to the director, who still shows a firm talent for tapping into his protagonist’s twisted psyche with stylish flair that even a disjointed script can’t entirely bog down.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Eileen is a moody psychological thriller that is well-paced by director William Oldroyd and certainly well-acted by Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway, but a script that opts for a lighter and more novelistic narrative leaves it decisively less cinematic.

Three out of five stars

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