Eileen review | A wonderfully atmospheric, twisty neo-noir

anne hathaway and thomasin mckensie star in eileen
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William Oldroyd’s psychological thriller is a masterclass in putting us off chocolate. Here’s our Eileen review:

We first meet Eileen, a young Bostonian prison guard played brilliantly against type by Thomasin McKenzie, having an unusually nice time watching a couple in their car.

When the steaminess is all done and dusted, it’s hard to deny Eileen (“Oh, I swear what he means”, etc.) a little bit of fantasising. Aside from some crippling loneliness (she lives with her alcoholic ex-cop father, a man about as prone to emotional connection as the character description suggests), she might even just be dreaming about sitting in a functional vehicle: hers fills with smoke whenever she turns the engine on. Her life, appropriately, seems to have stalled, stuck in a job she hates with colleagues that seem to hate her almost as much. It’s hard not to feel sorry for her, in a slightly disturbed sort of way.

But things are about to take a turn, if not for the better, then at least for the different, when Anne Hathaway appears as the prison’s new resident psychiatrist. Immaculately put-together in a red dress, blonde bob and oozing confidence like her transatlantic accent drips clipped consonants, she’s everything Eileen isn’t. Here the Les Miserables and The Devil Wears Prada star’s megawatt charisma is on full display, her charm all the more dazzling opposite McKenzie’s kicked-puppy-dog shyness. Together, they fall into a sort-of-relationship that very quickly turns toxic, with delightfully sinister results.

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Car-based activities aside, Eileen is a very touchy-feely film, and not, for the most part, in a rude way. While the seductive romance between McKenzie’s prison guard and Hathaway’s femme fatal psychiatrist often veers beyond furtive glances and flirty dances, for a film obsessed with its protagonists’ unlived fantasies, something about Eileen feels very, often disturbingly, physical.

It’s there in Ari Wegner’s cinematography, beautifully lit and lending its 1960s setting a warm, almost cosy feeling completely at odds with McKenzie’s imagined attempts to blow her brains out. It’s in Eileen’s love of sweet things, paired with a fear of putting on weight that results in her spitting half-chewed chocolates into a bin. It’s there in her car, where she wakes after a romantic night on the town with chunks of vomit in her hair.

At times Eileen resembles the similarly un-Christmassy Christmas film, Carol: all sweet, romantic gestures and longing looks. At others, it plays out more like Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. The twisty and twisted plot barrels constantly between romance and noir-ish tension with a gusto that could easily prove exhausting. Luckily, the film looks and sounds beautiful enough to get away with it.

Richard Reed Parry’s soaring score lends itself brilliantly to the film’s noir-flavoured roots, while the glossy texture of Wegner’s shots creates a film dripping in style almost without effort. Moment to moment, too, Eileen is never anything less than utterly compelling, the alternately disturbing and blackly comic tone ensuring the plot never takes the audience’s attention for granted for long.

The ending, however, feels like it comes a little out of the blue, seemingly arriving just as the tension approaches, but doesn’t reach, its peak. But the desire for more is really a testament to just how beautiful the preceding 90 minutes have been. I could easily stay in Eileen’s world for twice that.

Eileen is playing at the BFI London Film Festival 2023, and arrives in cinemas on 1 December.

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