Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

William Oldroyd's Eileen
"There are so many shots through things, boundaries, borders, thresholds, that we are primed for other barriers crossed. Those transgressions are not light ones, but in them is an abject honesty." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Eileen is an unsettling and hypnotic piece, wrapped in a thick blanket of New England snow but with creeping tendrils of toxicity throughout. Anchored in two compelling performances by Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway, it lingers like smoke. Its subject matter is more than difficult, content warnings should apply. The cruelties of institutions, be they the boys' reform school that brings them together or law enforcement or families and repeatedly their intersections, are writ large in action and small in gesture.

Adapted from her own book by Ottessa Moshfegh with co-writer Luke Goebel, there are significant changes made to the text. Goebel and Moshfegh have co-written before. 2022's Causeway was an original idea. Though Eileen was a (prize-winning) début novel it does seem that experience with film has allowed changes for the better. They both in their own way tell you what their endings will be, but how they get from there and back is quite different.

Some of that is medium. A lot of that is craft. Only William Oldroyd's second feature, another adaptation of a novel after Lady Macbeth, it shows a steadiness and patience that speaks to both skill and confidence. I was reminded for several reasons of the work of Todd Haynes, especially Carol but there's a constant undercurrent of tensions much as in Far From Heaven. There were moments that recalled the work of Lynn Ramsay too, but some of that is in thematic and aesthetic tensions.

It would be fairer to compare the work to its source, and thanks to my local library I was able to read Eileen. Something that's much easier than with our eponymous protagonist, all wrapped up and bound up. McKenzie is a whirlwind of repression, Hathaway in contrast something glacially glamorous. The film is significantly less visceral, the trials of the flesh are exchanged for far more filmic fumes. Eileen drives around in a car with a faulty exhaust, keeping the windows down so those curling carbon oxidations can't claim her. The car isn't as central as that of Blue Ruin but it's equally emblematic. It needs fixed, but it won't be. Idling on the roadside it is passport and prison both, low in the mist with fog within and without, keys in the ignition and a boot full of shoes.

Eileen's father a familiar face, Shea Whigham now entering 'that guy' territory as he passes 100 roles. 'Chief' Dunlop is a menace, a drunk, an arc of misbehaviour and tolerance that's condensed from the novel like moisture in cold air. Something sharper, palpable. When Eileen says "He didn't kill a cop, he killed his father, there's a difference," it's a new line in a script that re-uses plenty, a more efficient course, a stronger one. The novel won awards and the film should too, swapping the black and white of the page for the fuzziness of chemical processes. No ink carries as much truth as alcohol, the developing of the negatives until a stark picture arrives.

I adored it, as difficult as it is. Reading the novel later I can see where prose has been made sparer, embracing the powers of film. There are differences in the endings, as I said: the two make differently clear where things are going but the film has a colour and a mystery to it all. That might be giallo - it's shocking enough when the blood flows - or noir. Those shadows of the low winter sun and the deep winter nights are black enough to hide all manner of sin. The soundtrack is full of Sixties romance, Richard Reed Parry's jazzy woodwind score, something brooding, swept under the carpet between those walls of sound. The tracks (and their wrong sides) are from elsewhere, different spectres haunting things. The Exciters version of Tell Him, three at least from Connie Conway. It's also compelling when it stops, one moment of silence as bold as Bullit's leap from Lalo Schiffrin to shifting gears. There are fantastic interludes, an intrusion of horror in the spaces between the mundane, turning the corner from a suburban cul-de-sac to some Nightmare Alley or a garden as willing to lend an ear as in Blue Velvet.

We are rewarded for listening, watching. Seeing Eileen put five sugars into a thin porcelain cup, stirring them with a seashell spoon as she stares through an office window at the patricide Lee Polk, the thin walls of the container show churning liquid behind, the light from across the prison yard filtered through so many layers that we cannot be sure what she is reflecting upon. Moshfegh has made her story more efficient, cut closer to the quick. I could run chapter and verse (so to speak) about the differences, but one telling one is the way a bottle is opened. In the novel it's more violent, desperate, in the film it is ingenious but no less striking, even more so. To turn a break into a repeated series of blows is perhaps indicative. Characters are combined, the 260 pages of the Jonathan Cape version become a brisk 97 minutes. Time that flies, in the company of allusions, illusions, faces in the smoke. There are so many shots through things, boundaries, borders, thresholds, that we are primed for other barriers crossed. Those transgressions are not light ones, but in them is an abject honesty.

It is not an easy watch, and much of that is from subject matter. It shares most of its revelations with its source but they unfold differently, the last few beats to a different rhythm. I'd hesitate to recommend it not because it isn't good, but because of the weight of it all. As petite as Eileen is she is carrying great burdens, affording others the opportunity to unload theirs. This is more substantial than smoke, but just as intoxicating, and perhaps to some as harmful, but breathtaking in its quality.

Reviewed on: 22 Dec 2023
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Set during a bitter 1964 Massachusetts winter, young secretary Eileen becomes enchanted by the glamorous new counsellor at the prison where she works. Their budding friendship takes a twisted turn when Rebecca reveals a dark secret — throwing Eileen onto a sinister path.
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Director: William Oldroyd

Writer: Luke Goebel, Ottessa Moshfegh, based on the novel by Ottessa Moshfegh

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

Year: 2023

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: US

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