Last Updated on December 15, 2023
PLOT: Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) is a depressed young woman living a dreary existence in 1960s Boston. She’s stuck taking care of her cruel, alcoholic father (Shea Whigham) while working as a secretary in a boys’ prison. Her life changes when the prison’s new psychiatrist turns out to be an alluring young woman (Anne Hathaway), unlike anyone Eileen has ever met.
REVIEW: Based upon the above synopsis, one might expect this to be a companion piece to Todd Haynes’ excellent Carol, which told a period love story between two women shackled by their repressive era. Eileen isn’t that movie. They might be selling it as that kind of film, but suffice it to say William Oldroyd’s (Lady Macbeth) movie will surprise you – unless you’ve read the book it’s based on by Ottessa Moshfegh. A third-act twist essentially changes the movie’s genre and sends it into pulpier territory, and it’s a transition the director and cast pull off beautifully. Yet, part of the fun is not knowing exactly where it’s going, so this review will avoid spoilers.
Even before the twist, though, Oldroyd’s film is terrifically entertaining. Thomasin McKenzie is a star in the making. While she could have played Eileen as mousy, she has an edge to her right from the start, talking back to her nasty fellow employees and taking coffee breaks to sneak away and indulge in a bit of self-gratification.
By contrast, Anne Hathaway, plays a more stylized role. She’s bold, with her dressed to the nines and looking her most alluring. She must seem like a tantalizing glimpse at another kind of life to Eileen. Still, Hathaway’s character also has hidden depths, with it suggested that she’s begun digging into an infamous local case where one of her patients killed his father. The man was a local police hero, leading Eileen’s father to dub him a psychopath, but there seems to be more to the story – and there is. Hathaway and McKenzie are both pitch-perfect, even inject their roles with a touch of camp when needed, something a lot of people couldn’t pull off nearly as well as they do here.
As likeable as they both are, Shea Whigham chews the scenery as perhaps the most loathsome father character we’ve seen in some time. While not physically abusive, he torments Eileen mentally, to the point that she daydreams about blowing his brains out. He also seems to be losing his mind, with him taking to waving his gun at random children in the street, leading to a sympathetic cop character (played by Yellowstone‘s Jefferson White) demanding that Eileen take custody of his weapon, which may or may not be a grand idea.
Oldroyd directs Eileen with a welcome sense of humour. While one might expect a film like this to be austere, Eileen is anything but. It’s beautifully shot and fast-paced, with some welcome moments of black comedy. While an actor’s showcase first and foremost, Oldroyd has a lot of style. Given the cast, the film could be a commercial hit once folks start talking about the twist.
Indeed, it was a late surprise at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I went in expecting a tragedy, but instead, I wound up with a movie that not only thoroughly entertained me but had me on the edge of my seat. It’s a terrific potboiler with excellent performances from McKenzie and Hathaway. You may not think a film like this is for you, but give it a chance.