Director: William Oldroyd
Writers: Luke Goebel, Ottessa Moshfegh
Cast: Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway, Shea Whigham, Owen Teague, Sam Nivola
Producers: Stefanie Azpiazu, Anthony Bregman, Peter Cron, Luke Goebel, Bavand Karim, Ottessa Moshfegh, William Oldroyd
Music: Richard Reed Parry
Cinematographer: Ari Wegner
Editor: Nick Emerson
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 97mins
What’s the story: Christmas time in mid-1960s Massachusetts. The unhappy life of troubled young woman Eileen Dunlop (McKenzie) is upended by the arrival of glamourous psychiatrist Rebecca St. John (Hathaway) to her small town.
What’s the verdict: Eileen is a devilish concoction from director William Oldroyd and writers Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh. Based on Moshfegh’s novel, this B-movie throwback echoes vintage era Fritz Lang or Ida Lupino.
Thomasin McKenzie is Eileen, an early twenties clerk at a juvenile detention centre in a one-bar Massachusetts town. When not on the receiving end of jibes from her older co-workers (although Eileen returns in kind), she is taking demeaning flack from her alcoholic, war veteran dad, Jim (Whigham). Yet beneath the muted colour of her clothes desire burns: we’re introduced to Eileen spying on couples necking on a lover’s lane, cooling her ardour by stuffing snow into her undies. A habitual fantasist, she also imagines rough clinches with a surly guard (Teague). She is also intrigued by Lee (Nivola), a young inmate awaiting trial for butchering his sleeping dad.
Into Eileen’s life arrives Anne Hathaway’s Dr. Rebecca St John. Harvard trained, she is replacing a casually sexist shrink being put out to pasture. Fizzing with ideas out the R.D. Liang playbook, Rebecca also takes a shine to the young clerk, who in turn experiences exciting new emotions.
Eileen is perfect addition to that list of great “anti-Christmas” movies, including Brazil, Inside, Eyes Wide Shut, and The Silent Partner. The festive lights strung along porches barely cut through the overcast gloom. Snowfall chills the bones rather than warming the heart. Spot-on period design and visuals resembling old Eastman film stock (take a bow cinematographer Ari Wegner) evoke that B-movie feel.
But the filmmakers are not interested in delivering a depress-fest. Black comedy laces the film like cinnamon sprinkled on hemlock. The gasps and gags include but are not limited to violent, Billy Liar style daydreams and the often comically cruel declarations of Eileen’s pa. And anyone worrying this is another example of pastiche cinema, slavishly attempting to recreate the feel of old movies, fear not: Eileen is building to something.
To say what would spoil well placed surprises, but the film explores issues of abuse and sexuality that Lang and Lupino would have been forced to dance around. Everyday misogyny – from casually sexist workplace to bar room groping and abusive homelives – creates monsters of all ages. Institutions reinforce the status quo: Whigham’s Jim may be a dangerous drunk with a penchant for pointing his gun at kids, but as an ex-police chief he still commands unwarranted respect.
In a supporting role Hathaway once again proves how interesting she can be when given the right character. With chic clothes, a Marilyn Monroe hairdo, and a fierce intellect, she is the perfect star to attract a troubled wallflower.
But this is McKenzie’s show, and is a better vehicle than the frustrating Last Night in Soho, which tackled similar subject matter with mixed results. Here she embraces the role of a sometimes-functional traumatised woman. Delicate features bely a tough-talking nature, yet convey a lifetime of cruelty. That she does this with humour, spice, and pathos makes McKenzie one of the most exciting actors on the scene.