Anne Hathaway has had a rollercoaster career – both in terms of her movie projects, as well as the public’s perception of her. After a couple of misfires for Netflix and HBO Max, Hathaway is back in the realm of the critically-acclaimed drama movie – with James Gray’s Armageddon Time, and now with William Oldroyd’s Eileen.
William Oldroyd broke through with 2016’s Lady Macbeth, which provided Florence Pugh with her star-making leading role. He has not made a movie since then, but he’s also a theatre director. Oldroyd is now back with another movie based on a book – this time Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel Eileen – set in early 1960s Massachusetts.
Kiwi actress Thomasin McKenzie has had a very impressive run of movie roles since her breakout in 2018’s Leave No Trace. These include Taika Waititi’s JoJo Rabbit, M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog, and Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho. McKenzie plays the titular Eileen – a quiet and shy young woman who has moved back in with her alcoholic father, a retired police chief (Shea Whigham) since her mother died.
Eileen works in an administrative role in the local prison, and one day her world is dramatically opened up by the arrival of Dr. Rebecca Saint John (Hathaway) – a psychologist who graduated from Harvard. Rebecca is blonde and glamorous, she has come from New York City, and she quickly befriends the young Eileen.
Eileen is trapped in the drudgery of her small-town life, and has a fractious relationship with a father who constantly berates her and assures her that she is not destined for greatness. He even tells her that she will never have love in her life. Eileen lives a rich fantasy life – filled with sexual desire, as well as violent desires (be warned that these are quite shocking and graphic).
McKenzie does well with the distinctive Massachusetts accent, and gives a typically restrained performance, where it’s clear that a lot of strong feelings are bubbling under the surface. Hathaway is a breath of fresh air, with a (fashionable at the time) mid-Atlantic accent – Rebecca provides colour and a much-needed shot of energy to the grey prison environment and surrounding town.
Eileen will suffer from inevitable comparisons with Todd Haynes’ Carol, as there are many similarities – both are set on the East Coast in the mid-20th century, at Christmas time, and feature a close friendship (maybe something more) between an older, glamorous blonde and a younger, ‘mousy’ brunette. The relationship between Eileen and Rebecca is far more ambiguous and complex than the one in Carol, however.
Rebecca also has some new and unorthodox ideas regarding the young men in the prison, as she tries to talk to them and actually find out why they committed their crimes. Sam Nivola (recently seen in White Noise) plays one of these men, who has committed a particularly grisly murder and Marin Ireland plays his mother. She gets a speech during the film’s final act which proves why she’s one of the best – but still very much under the radar – actresses working today.
Australian cinematographer Ari Wegner reteams with Oldroyd after Lady Macbeth. Wegner is one of the most exciting names in her field at the moment – having worked on In Fabric, Zola, True History of the Kelly Gang and being Oscar-nominated for the western The Power of the Dog in 2022.
Eileen doesn’t have stunning vistas for Wegner to take advantage of, so the cinematography is naturally more understated. She effectively portrays the freezing small town, with several scenes set in Eileen’s smoke-filled car being particularly bleak. Wegner signposts the colour that Rebecca brings into Eileen’s life by occasionally drenching the frame in red light, with its inevitable connotations of sexual frisson and danger.
The score by Richard Reed Parry is another strength of Eileen, with its early use of woodwind giving way to a full-blown erotic thriller or Film Noir jazz score by the end. This is the only clue you’re going to get, regarding the film’s final act, because it’s best to go in knowing as little as possible (if you haven’t read the book, of course). Just know that there is a gasp-inducing moment where the film takes a huge left-turn – which could win or lose the audience.
Eileen will certainly be divisive, especially with where it goes in its final act. It won’t work for everyone, but big swings should be encouraged in movies. McKenzie, Hathaway, Whigham, and Ireland all deliver impressive performances. In fact, this is the best use of Hathaway in a movie since 2016’s monster movie Colossal. It’s tonally interesting, even before the ‘big moment,’ with unexpected lines of dialogue and occasional flashes that will shock and provoke the audience. Just as he did with Lady Macbeth, Oldroyd leaves the audience with much to chew on, and there will be inevitable discussions and debates once it comes out.
Eileen is a quality drama, with elements of some of the best thriller movies, for grown ups. It doesn’t provide easy answers, and the characters are not black-or-white. The relationships are all extremely complicated, with layers gradually revealed via the nuanced screenplay and deftly-tuned performances. The cinematography and score are also highlights, with Wegner and Parry helping to build the uneasy atmosphere and foreshadowing the genre shift towards the end. This will probably be a love-it-or-hate-it-movie, but there’s an awful lot to love.
Eileen review (Sundance 2023)
Anne Hathaway finally gets a role that utilizes her strengths in this brilliant drama-turned-thriller from director William Oldroyd. Thomasin McKenzie, Shea Whigham, and Marin Ireland also give impressive performances. The cinematography and score combine to help aid the uneasy atmosphere. An excellent drama movie for grown ups.