‘Eileen’ Review: Anne Hathaway & Thomasin McKenzie Star in Romance-Mystery That Defies Expectations | Sundance 2023
Eileen, the first film from William Oldroyd since 2016’s Lady Macbeth made Florence Pugh a star, is more defined by what it isn’t than what it is. Like his previous film, Eileen is an exercise in restraint, as this story, based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s book of the same name and with a screenplay written by Moshfegh and Luke Goebel, zigs where you expect it to zag, always defying the audience’s expectations. What begins as an almost Carol-esque story of forbidden love in the 1960s, swerves into something far more unforeseen. Eileen knows where you think it’s heading, and decides to deviate from the presumptions.
Thomasin McKenzie stars as Eileen, who works at a prison in 1960s Massachusetts, and lives with her alcoholic ex-cop father (Shea Whigham), who finds a way to insult her in the most cutting way with every interaction. Eileen is also incredibly lonely, as the first time we meet her, she’s watching a young couple fool around in a car. She doesn’t just want someone who understands her, she also deeply wants the physical aspects that come with it. Her life has become mundane: go to her prison job, bring dad home a bottle of booze, come home, get berated by her dad, and do it all over again the next day.
But Eileen might have found what she’s looking for in Dr. Rebecca St. John (Anne Hathaway), a prison psychologist who thinks differently from the rest of the facility, and befriends Eileen, opening her up more than the meek person she’s seemed to be. In one beautifully structured scene, with gorgeous cinematography from Ari Wegner (The Wonder, The Power of the Dog), Eileen and Dr. St. John go out to a bar, bathed in red neon light, as they learn more about each other, and decide to dance with each other. As they enjoy each other’s company, a man tries to cut in, which causes the good doctor to knock the man on his ass, as she’s not willing to put up with nonsense like this. Without directly telling us, Oldroyd tells us plenty about the doctor, a woman shrouded in secrecy, but can clearly take care of herself when going for what she wants.
Like Lady Macbeth, Eileen is also about the restrictions put on women in the past, and fighting against such limitations, as both Eileen and Dr. St. John allow themselves to embrace their happiness, despite the world around them. We also are being told a story of generational trauma, be it through Eileen frequently getting insulted by her father, or a young prisoner who has something to hide. And yet, this isn’t what Eileen is about—well, at least fully. Moshfegh’s story takes a sharp right turn when it’s least expected, opening this story up and expanding what is really going on in a fascinating way. Yet this shift makes perfect sense in context, and while it might take the audience by surprise, once the dust settles, the choice makes perfect sense.
McKenzie plays the timid Eileen in an understated, meek way, yet since we see her when no one else does, we know that there’s more that meets the eye with her character. It’s especially fun to watch McKenzie play off Hathaway’s Dr. St. John, a character who dominates every room she’s in, and knows fully who she is, even if the characters around her see her as a mystery. Also great is Whigham, who is defiantly awful in every scene, a constant source of insults and general meanness, to a point that it’s shocking that Eileen has been able to put up with him for so long. And while she only gets one major scene, Marin Ireland might have the most impactful moment in the entire film, as a mother who feels trapped by her options within her family. Ireland’s scene is extremely dark, but speaks to the confines that all the major female characters feel in this universe.
But beyond this beautiful recreation of the 1960s and these performances, Eileen’s strength comes in its screenplay. Like Moshfegh and Goebel’s screenplay for last year’s Causeway, there isn’t a rush to Eileen, as we often sit with these characters, and watch them figure out their situations. For example, in one sequence where Eileen comes over to Dr. St. John’s house for Christmas Eve, the camera often sits back and allows us to bathe in the insecurities, uncertainties, and worries that have overcome these women in this moment. And while Eileen is mostly a quiet addition to each scene, quick fantasy sequences show the racing mind of this woman who is likely too retired to her life to follow through on these ideas.
However, Eileen‘s conclusion might also throw off audiences, as it seems like this story gets out right when the stakes are upped and the story is kicking in. While the narrative sticks relatively close to Moshfegh’s original book, this ending almost feels like a blunt choice, as opposed to what might be the more logical one. Yet, as is true for this entire film, Eileen continues to subvert expectations until the very end, deciding to stop when it feels like the story might just be starting.
Eileen is an intriguing little story that shifts and alters the further it goes, playing with the audience, and giving them the opposite of what they’re expecting. Eileen isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea—especially those who think they know exactly what they’re getting themselves into—but Eileen is an admirable bit of defiance that is a joy to live inside for 90 minutes.