In just two films it’s abundantly clear that director William Oldroyd has an interest, and more importantly, a talent for telling stories that feature formidable female performances. His debut feature, the steamy period drama Lady Macbeth, boasts one of Florence Pugh’s earliest and best performances to date. And now with his second film, the psychological thriller Eileen, he’s showcasing not one, but two more fantastic female turns. Starring Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway, his sophomore feature is a twisted 60s-set thriller that sees both leading actors seriously impress.
McKenzie plays the film’s eponymous protagonist, a shy and well-mannered woman living in Boston and employed at a local prison. When not at work she cares for her abusive and alcoholic father, Jim (Shea Whigham), the town’s former chief of police. Confined to this unforgiving existence, Eileen is deeply unsatisfied with her life, that is until Hathaway’s glamorous psychologist, Rebecca, gets a job at the same prison. Immediately enamoured, Eileen is inexplicably drawn to her new colleague and the pair begin to become close, but at what cost?
Adapted from Ottessa Moshfegh’s award-winning novel of the same name, Eileen presents audiences with an intriguing fusion of genres. Eileen’s troublesome home-life has all the makings of an emotional family drama, but the almost celebrity-like arrival of Rebecca affords the film an unmistakable air of romance too. As both dramatic and romantic elements seductively unfold, they too shine light on the screenplay’s darker details. Consistently delivered in a fashion set to stun and shock its audience – and enhanced even more so by the rich and melodramatic compositions of Richard Reed Parry – Eileen possesses a truly rare unpredictability, making it a genuine thrill to watch.
Admittedly, this thrill doesn’t come straight away. But as soon as Hathaway graces the screen with her imposing presence, the film becomes utterly mesmerising. There’s a real magnetism to Hathaway here, one that feels reminiscent of Cate Blanchett in Todd Haynes’ Carol. The allure that she exudes so naturally makes Eileen’s fascination with Rebecca effortlessly understandable. There’s an additional edge to her character and performance though; she feels mysterious and dangerous, with Hathaway committing to these further facets of the character’s personality with campery of the highest order.
It would be reasonable to expect her work here to overshadow her younger co-star, but McKenzie absolutely holds her own, and might just deliver the best work of her career so far. Her confidence is captivating, and the chemistry that she’s able to conjure with Hathaway is essential for creating the film’s compelling central dynamic. It’s no surprise, then, that Eileen’s best scenes are when the duo share the screen. Their flirtatious interactions and deepening connection forge a romantic tension that’s wildly intoxicating. Yet, Mckenzie brings enough gravitas and individuality to her own role – one that sees a young woman powerfully embrace her agency – to ensure that audience’s will remember this is Eileen’s story, not Rebecca’s.
However, despite the undeniably enthralling double act at its core, when Eileen and Rebecca aren’t together the hold that their enchanting relationship has over the film isn’t just as strong. And unfortunately, these more isolated moments ultimately expose some of Eileen’s shortcomings. The most pressing of which being a structure and pace – including a rather abrupt ending – that somewhat undermines the important development of its narrative and main character.
For all of its shocks and surprises, of which there are many, Eileen’s cruellest twist is that it leaves you wanting just slightly more.
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William Oldroyd’s shocking and seductive sophomore feature somewhat struggles with its pace and structure, but dazzling performances from Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway ensure that Eileen remains an enthralling watch.
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