The Movie Waffler New to VOD - EILEEN | The Movie Waffler


A young prison secretary becomes infatuated with an enigmatic counsellor.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: William Oldroyd

Starring: Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway, Shea Whigham, Marin Ireland, Owen Teague

Eileen poster

Paul Schrader described his script for Taxi Driver as the story of a Protestant kid from the snow country who wandered into a New York cathedral. William Oldroyd's adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh's novel Eileen (the script is penned by Moshfegh and her partner Luke Goebel) is something of a reversal of this idea. Here the kid, Thomasin McKenzie's Eileen, is an Irish-American Catholic in New England, with all the clichés you might expect of such a figure. She's sexually frustrated and has to deal with an alcoholic ex-cop father (Shea Whigham). Sometimes Eileen fantasises about blowing her brains out with her father's gun, or blowing his brains out. She doesn't wander into New York; rather Manhattan sophistication wanders into her life.

Eileen review

Eileen works as a secretary at a prison for teenage boys. Her world is shaken up by the arrival of a new counsellor, Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), a WASPy New Yorker with a Marilyn Monroe hairdo and the speech patterns of Jennifer Jason Leigh's portrayal of Dorothy Parker. She's self-assertive and stands up for herself when she becomes the object of unwanted male attention. This is the glum early 1960s, when the decade was yet to swing, and for Eileen, meeting a woman like Rebecca must be like hearing The Beatles for the first time.

Eileen may be innocent and unworldly, but she's also smart. Rebecca seems to see something in her, and the two become fast friends. In Rebecca's company Eileen disguises her working class accent and begins wearing lipstick and figure-hugging dresses. She would do anything for Rebecca, and as the narrative progresses we get the sense that she may well be called upon for such a favour.

Eileen review

If Eileen initially seems like a lesbian take on Double Indemnity, with the infatuated Eileen being lined up as a patsy by Rebecca, this idea is shattered as the two women gradually trade places. Eileen's transformation from a shrew to a femme fatale is an echo of Kim Novak in Vertigo, the difference here is how Eileen willingly goes along with the metamorphosis. Unlike Jimmy Stewart, Rebecca doesn't have to exert a dictatorial control over Eileen, who happily sheds her old skin and embraces the possibilities of becoming the sort of woman Rebecca requires. In the final act, when Eileen looks like she was born to wear blood red lipstick and hold a pistol, Rebecca has lost her sophisticated apparel, clad in a dowdy cardigan. Rebecca appears drained of energy, while Eileen has never been more alive. It's as though a transfusion has occurred between the two women.

Like Isabella Eklöf's Holiday, Eileen could be viewed as the origin story of a super-villainess. But like many origin stories, Eileen feels like it's missing a third act. The film ends at the point where most noir thrillers are set to ramp up the tension, leaving us to fill in the blanks ourselves. It's a sign of how invested we've become in McKenzie's incredible performance that we feel cheated by this ending. The young Kiwi star hinted at this kind of range in the mediocre Last Night in Soho, but here she's given a chance to explore a fully rounded character arc. Hathaway has the less challenging of the two roles, but does a fine job in imitating the classic femme fatales of mid 20th century Hollywood, even if it is ultimately revealed as just that, an imitation on Rebecca's part.

Eileen review

Oldroyd gave Florence Pugh her breakout role with a similar part to McKenzie's in his striking directorial debut Lady Macbeth. You expect McKenzie will get a similar boost from this, but let's hope she goes on to choose more interesting roles than Pugh. We may have to imagine what's next for Eileen, but we have decades of future performances from McKenzie to look forward to.

 is on UK/ROI VOD from February 19th.

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