Eileen: a dark, enticing, heady genre blend

William Oldroyd’s latest weaves a tale of infatuation between two intriguing women before propelling the narrative into violent thriller territory.

24 November 2023

By Caitlin Quinlan

Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie as Rebecca and Eileen in Eileen (2023)
Sight and Sound

There is a sickly, nicotine-yellow tinge to much of William Oldroyd’s adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 novel Eileen. It’s present in the colour grade and costuming of this neat, assertive film, imbuing it with a sense of malady from the very beginning. In the snow-laden Massachusetts town where the film takes place, everyone seems uneasy, numbed by the cold and stifled by routine – none more so than Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie), who spends her days as a young secretary at a juvenile prison, dead-eyed even when sneaking masturbation breaks and spying on the inmates.

A bolt of red cuts through the cloying atmosphere with the arrival of Rebecca St John (Anne Hathaway) in her glossy crimson car, with her refined accent and perfectly coiffed blonde bob. As the new prison psychiatrist, she sets about disrupting protocols and dispelling Eileen’s malaise, taking Eileen out for Martinis and dancing. When Rebecca lists her vices – smoking, coffee, red wine – Eileen trains herself to enjoy each of them. The mousy, unassuming office girl begins to lift her chin a little higher, rouge her cheeks and wear her dead mother’s fur coats.

The follow-up to Oldroyd’s commanding debut feature Lady Macbeth (2016), Eileen treads similarly twisted ground in its portrayal of a young woman clawing against the barriers placed in her way by her circumstances. The two films make an enticing pairing; the filmmaker is clearly preoccupied with formidably thorny characters and skilled at drawing striking performances from his actors. Both are literary adaptations, and Oldroyd is particularly adept at pushing them to their dark conclusions in tonally understated but visually compelling ways. 

In both films, supporting characters orbit the central figures, looming large or fading into the background as the protagonists grow into their own power or succumb to the temptation of others. Rebecca’s initial motives for luring Eileen seem a little confused – the film clearly toys with the unreliable narration of Moshfegh’s novel and the role of Rebecca as an idealised, even imagined, figure – but Hathaway and McKenzie play their mutual infatuation convincingly. Both have something to gain here: Rebecca finds in Eileen a committed student and eventual accomplice in her wicked games, and Eileen sees Rebecca as her chance to escape who she is, siphoning off pieces of Rebecca’s personality or style to use for her own newly developing persona.

Comparisons have been drawn, understandably, to Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015) and Josephine Decker’s Shirley (2020), period films that navigate feminine obsession and queer desire with varying degrees of transparency. Eileen is more muted on the sexual tension between its central characters; Oldroyd seems more concerned with capturing a stunted coming-of-age and the insecurities that can compel a young adult to shape their life around a figure far removed from their reality. In Carol and Shirley, the motives are love and fear; Eileen seems to have more sinister impulses, which her interest in Rebecca merely helps to bring to the surface.

Equally fraught is the relationship between Eileen and her alcoholic father (Shea Whigham), who tears down her pretensions through insults and bitter remarks. But the tired, tender way Eileen responds to him hints at her loyalty, a character trait that will have a devastating effect. Oldroyd keeps the narrative punchy: he gives us glimpses into Eileen’s interiority (including fantasies of blowing her own head off), then subverts this creepy humour through an expertly timed tonal switch from uncertain, obsessive romantic drama to violent thriller.

Moshfegh’s own touch as co-screenwriter, with her partner Luke Goebel, ensures some of the novel’s more squalid tone infects the film, but the symbolic allure of Rebecca’s life is as important. The attention to opulence (slender cigarettes balanced between manicured fingers) and grime (globules of vomit hang in Eileen’s hair one hungover morning), stylishly shot by Ari Wegner, gives the film an intriguing texture, and an appropriate one: Eileen searches for her true self between these poles of glamour and repulsion, emerging as a liberated woman satisfied with her own macabre desires. Oldroyd’s film glimmers and surprises, toying with the characters’ legibility and ratcheting up the dread, before an abrupt third act that snaps everything back to reality. It’s all so eerily inviting – but then it shows you just how deep the darkness goes.

 ► Eileen is in UK cinemas from 1 December. 

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