Review: In a fractious early exchange between the downtrodden heroine of director William Oldroyd’s psychological thriller and her bile-spewing father, the perpetually inebriated patriarch cruelly instructs his only child: “Get a life Eileen… get a clue!” Eileen follows orders, fearful of the repercussions if she dissents, but audiences may not appreciate the results of her wishful self-improvement, adapted by Ottessa Moshfegh from her critically acclaimed 2015 novel with husband Luke Goebel.
Set in 1960s Massachusetts, Oldroyd’s picture is a glacial study of perversity, compulsion and coercion that flirts with darkness and weirdness, with wafts of sapphic romance a la Todd Haynes’s infinitely superior Carol. Ultimately, Eileen is a lot of foreplay and very little satisfaction for either the characters or us with a hurried finale that twists sharply in one unexpected direction (replete with show-stopping monologue from Marin Ireland). A gnarly punishment is an awkward fit for the torrid crime.
Stylistic flourishes including projector reel clicks on the soundtrack to evoke a bygone era of film noir on celluloid are welcome and Anne Hathaway is positively delicious as an alluring psychologist, who slinks through the youth reform system and seduces the title character into straying outside her comfort zone. Conversely, Thomasin McKenzie is emotionally underpowered as the wallflower waiting to bloom in poisoned earth and the tricky musicality of her Boston accent hits occasional bum notes.
Twenty-something shrinking violet Eileen Dunlop (McKenzie) works as a secretary at a juvenile detention centre, a thankless grind made bearable by secret erotic fantasies about one of the male guards (Owen Teague). Home life is equally dispiriting. She weathers constant abuse from her father Jim (Shea Whigham), a former police officer and drunk who likens important people to central characters in Hollywood movies. “Other people are just filling space, That’s you Eileen, you’re one of them,” he callously informs his daughter.
The arrival of glamorous psychologist Dr Rebecca St John (Hathaway) turns heads and Eileen is mesmerised by the impeccably tailored new addition to the staff. Rebecca reassesses the case of a sullen, withdrawn inmate named Lee Polk (Sam Nivola), who killed his father. “Some families are so sick, so twisted, the only way out is for someone to die,” observes the psychologist with icy detachment. As Eileen’s infatuation with Rebecca intensifies, the secretary supervises a tense visit from Lee’s mother Rita (Ireland) and Dr St John savours the adrenaline rush of living dangerously.
Eileen is a trudge compared with Oldroyd’s award-winning 2016 debut, Lady Macbeth, starring Florence Pugh, which also charts a disaffected heroine’s sexual awakening. A messy final 15 minutes dream of Hitchcock but wake closer to melodramatic poppycock.
Find Eileen in the cinemas