Thomasin McKenzie is an actress who gets better and better with each new film. William Oldroyd’s “Eileen” continues this streak, as the always interesting young actress gets one of her meatiest roles yet.
McKenzie plays the reserved title character who leaves college and comes home to 1960’s Boston to care for her father (Shea Whigham), a retired cop full of anger and bitterness and a vicious drunk who verbally abuses his daughter.
Eileen has taken a job at the Moorehead Prison for Boys, where she meets a new hire brought on as the head of education, Rebecca Saint John (Anne Hathaway).
The sexually frustrated Eileen is immediately attracted to her. Rebecca is everything Eileen longs to be. The alluring new co-worker is open-minded, outspoken, and alive with personality.
Rebecca is a character who is completely different from any Hathaway has played to date. The character seems sultry and fun on the outside, but there is something darker within, which Eileen latches onto, as she has her own dark thoughts. Hathaway navigates the role quite well and loses some of the more annoying acting ticks that have sunk her performances in so many films.
McKenzie and Hathaway are terrific together and their scenes have a fire to them. McKenzie shows skillful restraint in her acting choices while pulling off Eileen’s barely suppressed sexual urges and dangerous inclinations.
It is too bad that Oldroyd’s film can’t live up to the high bar set by the performances from his two leads.
Adapted by Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh (from Moshfegh’s novel), the film wants to be (to use an overused phrase) Hitchcockian in its examinations of two dangerous women coming together and the twisted outcome that ensues.
Oldroyd’s direction is nothing but a put on. The filmmaker can’t hold his grip on the film’s drama nor the suspense, which should have really popped for this story. The director’s bag of tricks seems to be empty.
The whole exercise is sadly undercooked, as the intricacies found within the novel and its characters are only hinted at. It is up to McKenzie and Hathaway to find the layers to Eileen and Rebecca (and they do!), but they are failed by their director’s alienating direction.
Oldroyd makes a few strange decisions throughout, the most dramatically offensive is ending his film too abruptly when there was so much more to explore.
The final shot wants to be a macabre joke and the joke is certainly on us, but not the way the filmmaker intended.
The director did such great work with 2016’s “Lady Macbeth”. With that film, Oldroyd’s off-the-beaten-path directorial choices were inventive and made the piece something special. With this latest work, the whole film plays as if he was just fooling us into believing he was searching for something deeper. By film’s end, the audience should feel betrayed.
“Eileen” had the potential to be a dark, sexy, psychological thriller. Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway play it as such, turning in smoldering, intense performances.
The two actresses keep us fairly interested and try their best to distract, as the film around them crumbles to dust.
Written by Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh (from Moshfegh’s novel)
Directed by William Oldroyd
Starring Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway, Shea Whigham
R, 97 Minutes, Film 4/Fifth Season