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‘Eileen’ Review: A Quizzical And Chilling Thriller That Reaches An Uncertain End

Eileen (2023); image courtesy of Jeong Park
Eileen (2023); image courtesy of Jeong Park

William Oldroyd’s film adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 debut novel Eileen is an unsettling and dryly funny thriller. The unlikeable and disturbing protagonist is played by Thomasin McKenzie who successfully brings the unique character of Eileen to life. The audience is immediately faced with the uncomfortable intricacies of the protagonist as we sit and witness her twice discreetly rub herself in the first few minutes alone. 

It is indicated that the life of Eileen is one of mundanity and a yearning for something greater. Amidst Eileen’s seemingly static life, taking care of her cold alcoholic father and working a mere job as a secretary in a boy’s penitentiary, we peek into her daydreams which consist mostly of shooting her father and fulfilling her sexual desires.

It is only when the character of Rebecca appears, played by Anne Hathaway, that Eileen is able to push the boundaries of her dull life. Rebecca exudes the glamour and spirit that Eileen lacks so it is no wonder we see her fall into a fury of obsession over Hathaway’s character.

Eileen leeches with intrigue and curiosity onto Rebecca. It starts with Eileen’s attention to close detail of Rebecca. First the habit of smoking cigarettes then the habit of drinking coffee; two practises Eileen witnessed from Rebecca.

The film is subtle in its queer embrace. One night, Rebecca and Eileen’s relationship dynamic takes a turn as Rebecca invites Eileen out for a drink and kisses her goodbye. Indeed, Rebecca is the great escape Eileen has been yearning for and I think this is effectively illuminated through the film's visuals, particularly the striking blonde of Rebecca’s hair against the dull winter of 1964 Massachusetts. From the moment Rebecca appears on screen, the cinematography evolves into what I can only describe as a visual delight.  

Moshfegh worked alongside co-writer Luke Goebel to bring her book to life. I do believe that having the author herself work so closely with the actors and assist in the creation of the film is what allowed the execution of both the characters of Eileen and Rebecca to be so accurately and intriguingly portrayed, which is what I was most pleased and engaged by. 

Eileen (2023); image courtesy of Jeong Park
Eileen (2023); image courtesy of Jeong Park

Hathaway herself has mentioned the challenge of “bringing main character energy to a supporting part”.This is where Moshfegh’s input was most effective. In the novel, Rebecca’s character is full of complete mystery and unknowingness, having only Eileen’s perspective to read through. The movie, however, does an exceptional job of allowing greater insight into the awe-inspiring nature of Rebecca to be manifested as we see fleeting and subtle moments of her when Eileen is not present.

In the book, it is easy to create this distance, having only Eileen’s perspective to read through. The movie, however, allows us to gain a greater insight into the awe-inspiring nature of Rebecca that Eileen finds herself drawn to. We see her visually as a self-assured, Marilyn Monroe-esque woman, bringing that “main character energy” to the role. 

Indeed, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, it seems as though McKenzie and Hathaway relied heavily on the published novel. McKenzie states “It was a real privilege to have the book as an incredible resource to be able to pull from…I felt like I got so many of the answers from the book.” It is this emphasis on the original text that I believe allowed Eileen and Rebecca to feel so supremely real.  

Where I do believe the film fell short, however, is the inability to effectively capture Moshfegh’s unique storytelling experience that relays with such ease in the novel as well as My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) and Death in Her Hands (2020). With the slow-paced ambiguities that occupy a large majority of the narrative, it felt as though the film was heading towards something greater, something crazier, yet I felt this anticipation was left unfulfilled. 

Perhaps this is where the discrepancies between a novel and a film adaptation come to light. The film was one of dark inauspiciousness but the book seemed all the more heady. What I mean by this is the film left me with even more questions than the novel incited. The pent-up anticipation of the queer narrative, for example, from the first hour seemed to reach a rather enigmatic climax, one that felt unfinished or even perhaps forgotten. 

Overall, this film adaptation of Moshfegh’s novel Eileen is a dark, tension-filled rendition. I do believe the execution of both the characters of Eileen and Rebecca set up against the beautiful and eerie cinematic backdrop is what really made this film a compelling experience. However, the plot lacked clarity, particularly at the end. It feels as though all the energy went into creating visual pleasance and supreme characterisation that the plot meandered and danced around a compelling climax or resolution.  

Eileen is in cinemas from 1st December 2023.


Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor


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