Saturday 13 April 2024

Review: Eileen

Year: 2023

Director: William Oldroyd 

Screenplay: Luke Goebel, Ottessa Moshfegh

Starring: Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway

Synopsis is here:

Much to my annoyance, Eileen slipped out on to streaming release with little fanfare. I have been interested in watching the film since the trailer dropped last year (at the time of writing). Due to current circumstances, catching it at the cinema would be difficult, so I had hoped that there would be enough weight behind the film to ensure that I, the lapsed film writer, would be a little more alert to its home video release. Unfortunately, this was not the case. In a world of algorithms and data mining, my joyless doom scrolling still had not got the tech authorities to drill down and fully learn my film-loving tastes. Despite constant warnings about how big tech knows all about the pornography that you may or may not watch. However unless you spend a week and a day hunched over your phone feeding it all your interests, all your media apps still feel hapless in supplying you with decent new recommendations for normal movies. While I’m a tad factious here, the nagging feeling that decent film distribution has been almost disintegrated by fractured markets and tech disruption still scratches my forever itching shoulder. It still feels like finding a film like Eileen can be a somewhat needless struggle at times.

That said, if people were talking about Eileen, I may have been playing too much EA FC 24 to have noticed. There seemed to be a distinct quietness about the film despite the clout of the people making the film. Based on the 2015 novel by acclaimed writer Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen the film is directed by William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth) with rising star Thomasin McKenzie as the titular character, and Anne Hathaway is the film’s enigmatic femme fatale, Rebecca. Set in 60’s Massachusetts, the film tells the tale of the sheltered Eileen. Her work life is a mundane job at a juvenile correctional facility. While she is dominated by her alcoholic ex-cop dad at home. Things take a turn when Rebecca becomes the facility’s new psychologist. Eileen is quickly overcome with infatuation due to Rebecca’s intelligence and glamour. The relationship begins to sour when an invite is offered, a favour is asked, and Eileen’s life is turned upside down over the Christmas holidays.

It's not surprising that director William Oldroyd is connected to this material. His debut feature Lady Macbeth (2016) harbours similar themes, in which the repression of a young woman leads to chaotic and tragic circumstances. There’s a clear connection with writer Moshfegh, who also co-writes the screenplay of her debut novel. Her work has been noted for its misanthropic and complicated anti-heroines, and this is where Eileen thrives. Particularly in the film’s first half, while the film quietly puts its pieces into play. Despite being a period piece, the film feels very in tune with the current state of modern female literature that Moshfegh operates in. The film works best when it encapsulates how smothered women can be by patriarchal societal norms. The film’s small-town setting helps make this feel particularly potent. From the onset, it’s obvious that the sexually ambivalent Eileen doesn’t fit in the narrow margins of this one-bar Massachusetts town. Once Rebecca’s well-educated, big-town presence enters the fray, the changing attitudes of the 60s appear to come with her. 

Eileen starts to run into problems once the film’s thriller elements come into play. A major incident occurs, but it feels like such a curveball that only the people truly invested in the main relationship may maintain a connection with the narrative. Suddenly it feels like the film’s final third needed extra minutes from the earlier sections of the movie. Elieen’s sideswipe of a third act feels awkwardly abrupt in a way that Moshfegh’s novel probably isn’t. In addition to this, there is a crucial change at the film's climax that feels disingenuous. Although credit must be given to the filmmakers for giving us a female relationship in which both characters are difficult to truly like. 

The biggest takeaway from the film is the two magnetic performances from the film's leads.  Thomasin McKenzie’s Eileen is perfectly mousey yet harbours an unknowable quantity about her which keeps her at arm’s length. In the end, you realise it’s for a good reason. Anne Hathaway excels as Rebecca. A woman whose confidence makes her equally as hard to pin down as Eileen. It’s films like Eileen which help highlight just how good certain actors can be. Hathaway doesn’t overact or chew scenery. She merely holds the audience’s gaze with an intense charm. She manages to be attractive and sexy, with no need to be explicit or obvious. The most arresting moment of her performance is when we realise that the confidence Rebecca previously had suddenly been misplaced, and she is just as fearful as Eileen is. 

Oldroyd wraps these two performances up in an atmospheric film that loses its way before the final credits. While aiming for a tonal shift that feels very difficult to ring true, Eileen still establishes itself as a film which creeps around the interiors of its complicated women well enough to stay interesting. That said, while I'm not completely sold on everything that Eileen was delivering, that's still no justification for streaming services harvesting my data poorly and almost hiding the film's release from me. I feel you have to do better, guys.