American writer Ottessa Moshfegh might be the pre-eminent author of her generation, her books capturing a feral brand of obsession, isolation and entitlement, most notably in her BookTok-friendly novels Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Understandably, then, that the adaptation of her first book, co-written by Moshfegh and her husband Luke Goebel, comes with some hype attached. And the anticipation doubles considering its Lady Macbeth director William Oldroyd behind the camera, making a long-awaited follow-up.
Eileen (Last Night in Soho’s Thomasin McKenzie) is a put-upon, laconic administrator at a boy’s prison in 1964. She’s also the reluctant carer of her alcoholic dad, a retired cop whose influence around town still gets him out of trouble. Her life is drab and uneventful, a flimsy edifice propped up by unwanted responsibilities and sharp jibes from most people she encounters. That is, until the electrifying arrival of a new psychiatrist at the prison, Rebecca St John (Anne Hathaway). She’s a Harvard-educated, martini-sipping, rule-breaking hurricane who unexplainably, takes an interest in Eileen.
The film tiptoes around the queer overtones of the protagonist’s instantaneous devotion to Rebecca, and the new arrival’s curiosity in Eileen. Rebecca is a liberating force for Eileen, whose desires have so far been confined to horny fantasies about her co-workers and a secret candy habit. No one writes about the propelling thrust of obsession like Moshfegh. Both on the page and the screen, the characters in Eileen are spurred on by their desire to possess and be possessed, to belong to someone and to be unencumbered.
This deliciously appealing unhingedness signals a new phase for Anne Hathaway
The film lives and dies by the electric connection between Eileen and Rebecca, escalating until a dark detour in the third act. Hathaway nails Rebecca’s toxic appeal. Styled like a Hitchcock blonde, she sashays her way between camp and truthfulness, crafting a deliciously appealing brand of unhingedness that signals a new phase for the actress. Underlined by the spectacularly jarring soundtrack by Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, every moment shared between them feels almost supernatural.
But McKenzie, a young actress of wonderful openness, is miscast as Eileen and the film suffers for it. She never captures the grossness and bitterness that came across on the page. Unable to channel her caustic edge, she makes her pitiful – more bland than biting. It’s hard to comprehend why anyone would be dismissive of her, or to sense the character’s darker shades. As a result, Eileen feels like a less-than-daring portrait of obsession.
Eileen premiered at the Sundance Film Festival