I have a love / hate relationship with director William Oldroyd‘s “Eileen,” his screen adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh‘s award-winning novel. The majority of the film works well (although it’s a bit slow), but the last thirty minutes reveal a shocking twist that feels out of place. Since the screenplay was co-written by Moshfegh and her husband Luke Goebel, it stays true to the original story. But this is a film that’s based on a book and, in what is likely a result of the author’s involvement, it feels plodding and overstuffed when a bit of editing would have made the adaptation more entertaining.

In 1960s Boston, Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) lives a drab life and dreary existence. She works as a secretary at the nearby prison, and the chilly Massachusetts winter is doing little to lift her state of mind. She lives at home with her abusive, alcoholic father (Shea Whigham) and does her best to take care of their crumbling house.

To get through the day, Eileen relies on elaborate fantasies and daydreams about escaping her life for good. A bit of real-life excitement arrives when a new counselor, the progressive and educated Dr. Rebecca St. John (Anne Hathaway), is hired by the prison. Eileen is instantly captivated by the glamorous and charismatic woman, and Rebecca takes an interest in Eileen, too. The pair begin an unlikely friendship that quickly turns into an extremely toxic one with a shifting balance of power.

The story is about the tension between the two women and how the desire for attention can be easily exploited by someone more assertive than the other. Eileen finally feels significant, feeding off the excitement, intrigue, and most of all, hope, from her new friend. This intoxication eventually leads the story into psychological thriller territory, culminating in a disturbing and shocking conclusion that comes from the power of persuasion. The narrative is tense yet sometimes offbeat, with a bit of humor woven into the unexpectedly dark and twisted noir tale. It’s a story of misery and depression, too, and one that certainly is not designed to make you feel good.

While there are some really terrible, exaggerated New England accents (so we aren’t mistaken where the story is set), the performances are mostly solid. Hathaway is terrific if not very nuanced, and the role of a highly educated sophisticate fits her well. I’m usually not a fan of her work, but this is one of her stronger performances. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the more awkward turns by McKenzie who, while talented, feels out of her depth here.

“Eileen” is an interesting enough film with a story that’s filled with dark secrets and unexpected revelations. The final third is fairly outlandish and threatens to sink the rest of the movie, but Oldroyd’s direction is stylish and the performances compelling, which are the reasons it’s a mild success.

By: Louisa Moore

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