Words by Jimmy Dougan (follow him on Letterboxd here) / Press images courtesy of Fifth Season
It feels like a bit of a miracle that Eileen even got made in the first place. It’s adapted from the 2015 novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, the closest thing to a genuine enfant terrible that contemporary literature has and a true radical in her field.
Moshfegh’s interests are in sickness and repulsion and why society makes outcasts of certain people over others. I adore her novels; she writes about what disgusts her, so that reading her work is akin to subjecting yourself to a cold plunge of relentless unsettlement.
So, it’s of no surprise it’s taken this long for anyone to be audacious enough to adapt one of her novels for the screen, and it’s also of no surprise than an artist as exacting as Moshfegh has a screenwriting credit on Eileen with Luke Goebel.
Their adaptation skews closely to the beats of original novel: Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) works as a secretary in a prison for horny, sex-obsessed teenage boys in 1960s Massachusetts, and the monotony of her everyday life is punctuated by violent fantasies of sex and suicide. She appears to be sliding inexorably towards death, when her life is abruptly upended by the arrival of the alluring Rebecca Saint John (Anne Hathaway), and while Rebecca is quick to take Eileen under her wing it becomes slowly apparent that she has other plans for this vulnerable, lonely young woman.
Key to conjuring this air of quiet deathliness is Ari Wegner’s cinematography, which gives the impressions of having been shot on grainy 35mm film. The world of Eileen has a pallid, sickly tinge to it. It is almost as if the world itself is retching with revulsion over what it’s turned into and is stained with a grimy nicotine tinge. Oppressive too is Craig Lathrop’s production design, all grubby and run-down. Everything is broken and nothing seems worth fixing.
When Rebecca slinks in (she is first seen in her car, blood red) you can’t blame Eileen for being drawn in. Hathaway turns in a performance that fluctuates between feline poise and hysterical weirdness. She gives Rebecca a silkily, predatory quality and when she’s on-screen the film has a perturbing, subtly frightening atmosphere. But she’s also incredibly strange, a thousand film noir stereotypes refracted into one body which is struggling to hold it all together. She is undoubtedly the film’s great pleasure.
It’s a shame then that the character of Eileen isn’t as well served by the transition to screen. The film captures the strangeness of Moshfegh’s writing, but feels oddly reluctant to plumb the depths of bodily repugnance the novel sinks to – where Eileen is an arse-scratching, finger-sniffing creature who refuses to wash her hands and maintains a spectacular thicket of pubic hair.
This dampening is effective in that it allows the film to better depict Eileen’s metamorphosis into a femme-fatale as she’s easier to root for, but you can’t help but feel that the spirit of the novel has been failed. McKenzie feels miscast: she evokes pity but never disgust, so that it’s confusing as to why she’s the outcast she is. Frustrating too is the decision to treat Eileen’s violent daydreams of suicide and murder as the fodder for cheap jumps, at odds with the slow-burn unravelling of the rest of the film.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Eileen is that maybe Moshfegh’s novels, being as singular as they are, simply aren’t made to withstand the transposition to another medium. The film, while certainly having its own twisted and warped pleasures, feels slight in comparison to the bona fide genius of the novel. It conjures an atmosphere of miserable dread which is disrupted and toyed with by Anne Hathaway’s pitch-perfect performance as Rebecca Saint John, though fumbles in capturing the first-person intensity of the novel.
But worst of all is that McKenzie feels woefully miscast as the lead, so that the first cinematic adaptation of an Ottessa Moshfegh novel winds up being the one thing it really, really shouldn’t be: forgettable.
Eileen – official trailer
Eileen is set for release in UK cinemas on 1 December. For more on Eileen visit www.neonrated.com/films/eileen
LFF screenings ran at MAC from 4 October until 15 October, for more info visit: www.macbirmingham.co.uk/london-film-festival-2023
To read more about the BFI London Film Festival go to: www.whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
For more from MAC, including all events listings, visit www.macbirmingham.co.uk
To follow Jimmy Dougan on Letterboxed visit www.letterboxd.com/jimmydougan