There’s an inescapable familiarity in the set-up for William Oldroyd’s Eileen. Christmas is just around the corner and the quiet, mousy Eileen meets the extrovert, blonde Rebecca, who has an unconventional attitude to life. There’s an attraction, friendship certainly, and the distinct possibility of something more.
But this is no Carol re-boot. Based on the novel of the same name by Ottessa Moshfegh, it owes more to film noir and the tradition of the blonde femme fatale, yet at the same time fights shy of being categorised. Set in the 60s, Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) is the daughter of the former local chief of police. Now retired, he’s an alcoholic, difficult and demanding, while Eileen has a tedious clerical job at the local youth prison. The arrival of Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), the new psychiatrist, introduces some colour into both the institution and the younger woman’s life. They become close friends and then Eileen finds herself embroiled in a shocking crime, something that brings out another side in her.
The film marks Oldroyd’s return to Sundance after the success of Lady Macbeth (2017), which put Florence Pugh firmly in the spotlight. Could this do much the same for Thomasin McKenzie? Anybody who saw her in Leave No Trace and, more recently, Last Night In Soho, will know that it’s only ever been a matter of time before she gets the recognition she deserves. But, while she gives yet another impressive performance, this time of a downtrodden young woman with hidden depths, it’s debatable whether this is the film to help her make the transition. While it does a number of things well, it’s patchy and, at times, sadly muddled.
The restrictions of small town life and the belligerent father weigh down on Eileen and it’s convincingly oppressive, portrayed in dark, smoky colours and subdued lighting. She is just as much in prison as the young men in the jail, and it’s all accentuated by the colour and vibrancy that arrive with Rebecca (a seductive Hathaway). Her clothes and make up are bright but even more appealing are her attitudes and independent thinking, which make her stand out both in town and at work. No wonder the lonely, awkward young woman is captivated.
But it’s in the latter stages that the film, and the narrative especially, starts to unravel. The dramatic turn of events is signposted regularly in the film but, when it happens, Rebecca’s reasons seem somehow weak and, while putting up with her home life has given Eileen a concealed steeliness, her final decisions and actions aren’t only surprising but inconsistent. There’s enough to hold on to our attention – the two central performances in particular – but Eileen never fulfils its potential as an examination of small town 60s attitudes or as an out-and-out thriller.
Thriller | Sundance Film Festival, premiered on 22 January 2023 | Dir. William Oldroyd | Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway, Shea Whigham, Marin Irleand, Owen Teague.