The buzz around Sundance 2023 was that Eileen was like Carol with a dash of Hitchcock. That’s good buzz if you can get it.
Undeniably, there are superficial similarities between Todd Haynes’s heralded drama and William Oldroyd’s latest. Both are romantic period pieces centered on lesbian lovers, one of whom is a mousy brunette, the other a dynamic blonde with a dark side. Both films relish in nostalgia for the everyday glamor of the past and are named for one of their sapphic heroines. Perhaps most importantly, Elieen seems destined to strut in Carol‘s footsteps to critical and award-season accolades, bolstered by esteemed leading ladies. But where Eileen breaks free from Carol‘s shadow is in a final act that is exhilaratingly deranged — and may be the key to its strongest Oscar chances.
What’s Eileen about?
Based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel of the same name, Eileen centers on the eponymous protagonist, a twenty-something secretary barely living in 1960s Boston. Eileen Dunlop (Thomasin McKenzie) spends her days working at a grey prison and nights watching after her greying father, a retired cop (Shea Whigham) teetering on the brink of drunken calamity. The only excitement in her life is the vivid daydreams — often involving sex and violence — that puncture her monotony. That is until she meets Dr. Rebecca Saint John (Anne Hathaway).
The prison’s new psychologist blows in so abruptly and dynamically, she might be one of Eileen’s fantasies come to life. Tall, blonde, sophisticated yet sensual, Rebecca is a dizzying vision in a red dress suit and matching lip. Whether Eileen dreams of being her or being with her is unclear. (It’s probably a bit of both.) But this girl with a “propensity for sweets” is soon eating out of the palm of Rebecca’s hand, offering an ear, information, or puppy dog longing with the least prompting.
The desire between them brews between a dance number and stolen glances. But there’s more between them than this. While Eileen is desperate for a way out of her tedium, Rebecca is desperate for answers about Lee Polk (White Noise‘s Sam Nivola), a boy convicted of grisly patricide.
Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie dazzle in Eileen.
For McKenzie, the role of awestruck ingenue is familiar, most recently rolled out in Edgar Wright’s wobbly but glossy psychological thriller Last Night in Soho. McKenzie melts into a Boston accent and the shrunken posture of a girl bullied into being invisible. But in Eileen’s dreams — which boast the same saturated golds, reds, and browns as the rest of the film — she is seen, desired, and dangerous. Flashes of Eileen’s potential tease where her journey might lead, and Rebecca is her guide.
In contrast to the languid sensuality of Cate Blanchett’s Carol, Hathaway’s blonde bombshell is sharply sexy. There’s a crispness to her buttery diction and a dancer’s precision to her physicality. Rebecca is not one to slink into a fur coat. She’s more likely to tug one on with a brisk efficiency. But her edged intellect and metropolitan hardness make the poetry of her wooing all the more intoxicating. “You remind me of a girl in a Dutch painting,” she says through blood-red lips, and naturally Eilieen — and the audience — will follow Rebecca anywhere. Where that leads gives Hathaway a rich range to play.
If you loved the chaotic moxie Anne Hathaway brought to Colossal (Opens in a new window)or her campy femme fatale turn in the undersung Serenity, then you will absolutely scream as a rushed confession spills like red wine, dark and damning. And just like that, Eileen takes a hard turn that slaps Carol comparers across their agape mouths.
There’s no joy quite like watching a ‘bad’ movie with friends
Marin Ireland is Eileen’s secret weapon.
Is it too soon to declare 2023 Marin Ireland’s year?
The American actress who’s drawn notice in Umbrella Academy and the critically championed horror gem The Dark and the Wicked,(Opens in a new window) hit Sundance in two very different, very daring performances. The first was a modern Dr. Frankenstein in Birth/Rebirth. The second is in Eileen.
Without spilling the delicious secrets of Eileen, it’s safe to say that as enthralling as Hathaway and McKenzie are in the film’s first two acts, supporting player Ireland steals the third. There, she’s given the kind of monologue that makes audiences’ stomachs turn and actresses’ mouths salivate. Ireland sinks her teeth into this scene, biting to the bone of it, exposing ugly emotions of guilt, loneliness, grief, and ruthless rationalization. Through this, Rebecca, Eileen, and us — their audience and conspirators — are challenged to feel righteous outrage or radical empathy, or maybe even both. Either way, as I watched, wide-eyed and heartsick, I had a vivid vision of my own: Ireland, beaming and beguiling in a glamorous gown, poised for Oscar night glory.
Of course, there’s no guarantee. The Academy can be unpredictable and stodgy. So, perhaps Eileen — even with its prestigious cast and profoundly exhilarating performances — might be overlooked next year for its outrageous climax. But Oscar gold is by no means the only measure of success. So, cheers to Oldroyd, who has shrewdly employed alluring costumes, mesmerizing actresses, and a thirst-fueled setup to lure audiences into what they might mistake as familiar territory. Cheers to him for pulling the rug out from under us with one hissed line of dialogue. Bravo for all the electrifying mayhem and juicy drama that follows. Bless him for a finale that — yes — has a bit of Hitchcock to it, yet feels divinely wild and freshly thrilling. Here’s to the captivating and uncompromising Eileen!
Eileen was reviewed out of its World Premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (Opens in a new window)