mon 04/03/2024

Eileen review - a dank fairytale film noir | reviews, news & interviews

Eileen review - a dank fairytale film noir

Eileen review - a dank fairytale film noir

A naive prison worker crushes on a chic colleague in William Oldroyd's disturbing thriller

The wrong role model: Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway in 'Eileen'Focus Fearures

As the title character in Eileen, set in a miserable Massachusetts backwater in the days before Christmas 1964, Thomasin McKenzie plays a depressed hybrid of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty who’s awakened by a patently fake Princess Charming-cum-Hitchcock blonde.

The new psychologist at a correctional facility for youths, Anne Hathaway’s mysterious Rebecca is equipped with above-it-all insouciance, a Marilyn hairdo, and a Harvard degree (she claims). Drab Eileen is smitten by this martini-drinking sophisticate and comes alive when Rebecca takes her under her wing. Hathaway and McKenzie make sweet music together throughout, even when it’s as discordant as Richard Reed Parry’s shrieking jazz score.

However, there comes a point in William Oldroyd’s mesmerising film noir – Jim Thomson-like in its sordidness – when the dynamic between the drudge and her idol shifts. A little lipstick on Eileen’s mouth, a fishing around in the glove compartment of her death trap of a car, and…Eureka! Oldroyd was shrewd to cast the inventive New Zealand actor McKenzie (Leave No Trace, JoJo Rabbit, Last Night in Soho) in her darkest role yet because her presence invariably inspires empathy.

Following his first film Lady Macbeth (2016), which transposed a Nikolai Leskov novella of 1865 from Tsarist Russia to bleak Victorian Northumberland, Oldroyd wasn’t seeking to make another film about a patriarchally enslaved and sexually frustrated young woman liberated by transgression. But on reading Ottessa Moshfegh's 2015 novel Eileen, also a brilliant debut, he was impelled to seek her out. Moshfegh agreed to adapt it with her husband Luke B. Goebel, the pair having previously contributed to the script for Causeway (2022).

They eliminated a strand of the novel that raises the beguiling possibility that Rebecca is a figment of Eileen's imagination. An accident that befalls Rebecca becomes an impulsive act by Eileen. But the film is as forceful as Moshfegh’s novel in structuring the story around the absence of Eileen’s ungiving mother, which explains Eileen filling the void with the idealised Rebecca.

Eileen lives with her widowed father (Shea Whigham, excellent), a reclusive alcoholic ex-cop, in a house sallowed by neglect and the traces of Eileen’s cigarettes; smoke, mists, and hazes captured by Ari Wegner’s camera create the pall of Eileen’s daily rounds and the murkiness of her thoughts. 

Since her mother died, Eileen has been sleepwalking – and, to judge, by the opening scene – masturbating her way through life. At work, she imagines being taken from behind by a wiry young guard, Randy (Owen Teague), the least violent of the fantasies that Oldroyd actualises.

Eileen’s dad cruelly rebukes her about her hygiene, her undesirability, and her irrelevance, his thanks for her keeping him in booze and preventing him from causing civic disturbances of the worst kind. Yet one quiet conversation between them fleetingly reveals a vestige of love, or at least belonging. His verbal abuse says more about his malaise than hers, of course. Up in the attic where Eileen bunks down and spits out her chewed candies, she adds to the stash of banknotes that are her passport out of town. She has dreams of leaving and needs only a catalyst.

Enter Rebecca. Oldfield choreographs the aftermath of an interview conducted by her with a new inmate (Sam Nivola) and his livid mother (Marin Ireland) to show that something terrible broached during it will have to be resolved, perhaps impacting Eileen’s trajectory. Nearby, but not privy to what was said, Randy and Eileen react to the commotion in ways that indicate he is just a dumb redneck and she is the sanest person in the film. 

A literal dance (pictured above) follows in the town’s only bar, where Rebecca takes Eileen for a cocktail, her first date at the age of 24, and woos her with her flattering patter and slinky moves in front of the gawping deadbeat patrons. 

When Eileen returns to the bar after seeing Rebecca to her car, her actions indicate she doesn’t necessarily want Rebecca, but she sure as heck wants to be her. How could she resist another date, on Christmas Eve, too? If only she knew what Rebecca knows.

Oldroyd’s mesmerising film noir is Jim Thomson-like in its sordidness


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article


"ungiving mother"? Did you mean to write "unliving"?

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters