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Another tale of female self-actualisation from William Oldroyd, who follows Lady Macbeth with Eileen, a low-key melodramatic adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s best-seller.

Lady Macbeth made a star of Florence Pugh, who had been a star-in-waiting since her debut in Carol Morley’s The Falling, in 2014. The transformation isn’t quite so marked here, since Thomasin McKenzie has been turning heads since she was 12 – you might have seen her in JoJo Rabbit, The Justice of Bunny King, The Power of the Dog and Last Night in Soho. Like Pugh, it seems to be written in stone that McKenzie will hold aloft an Oscar at some point in her career.

We feel her pain as Eileen, the meek titular character working a nothing job in a nothing town with an abusive alcoholic father and little in the way of prospects. Then into her life comes Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), a city sophisticate and the new psychologist at the correctional facility where Eileen does drudge office duty. Rebecca is a free spirit bringing a bit of 1960s dash to a town seemingly stuck in the 1950s.

The two become allies at work, then get friendly over drinks at a local bar where they end up doing smoochy dancing, to the horror of the local rednecks. It looks like Eileen might be falling in love with Rebecca. Maybe it was love at first sight. Or maybe it’s more a case of seeing in Rebecca what she herself might one day be.

Death also hangs over this story. Eileen’s mother is dead, her ex-cop father (Shea Whigham) loves to wave his gun around and Eileen herself has fantasies… of killing herself or killing her dad.

But what really hangs in the balance is Eileen’s progress towards becoming her own person.

It looks like it’s going her way, until Moshfegh’s story pulls a bait and switch towards the end, in a banzai bit of plotting which marks the film out as a stealth melodrama.

Eileen out with her dad (Shea Whigham)
Eileen out with her dad (Shea Whigham)

Oldroyd does it all in slo-mo, building tension with sultry, grainy visuals and an economical camera hanging on to faces. He uses small details to flesh out characters – Rebecca demonstrating how to remove a cork from a bottle without a corkscrew, dad Jim peeling a boiled egg and then popping it whole into his mouth, the women in the admin office gurning at almost everything Eileen does, Eileen putting on her dead mother’s dress to impress Rebecca.

The mood-building and potential romance hold the attention, but there’s another story buried in here, of local lad Lee Polk (Sam Nivola), who has murdered his father and now sits in the facility awaiting trial, and the distraught mother (Marin Ireland), who visits him. If you’ve seen The Dark and the Wicked you’ll know how good Ireland is, and possibly wonder why she’s in such an inconsequential role. All is eventually explained, in a development that’s the film’s gotcha.

The gotcha matters not very much, as it didn’t in Moshfegh’s original story. It seems to be there to bring to a dramatic conclusion a story which otherwise might have continued indefinitely. It’s the stuff that happens before then that’s the good stuff in this evocative movie. And as Eileen and Rebecca cox and box so do Hathaway and McKenzie, the former melodramatic, the latter more naturalistic.

It’s a fascinating film but though the plot switcheroo works better as a narrative device than as a logical development, it does allow for a bit of overcooked Freudian development, as Rebecca (Superego) and Eileen (Ego) are eventually joined, in the basement, by Mrs Polk (Id).

Look at those end credits, blaring away like a 1940s noir that’s been colourised. It announces that what we’ve been watching is not at all what we thought we’d been watching, though death, death, death has been lingering – as a theme, a fact and a word – from the first moment to the very last.

Eileen – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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