She’s captivating. It’s the first thing you notice about Anne Hathaway’s character Dr. Rebecca Saint John, one of the elusive anchors of Eileen, an adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 novel. You notice it because the movie makes you notice. Dr. Saint John wafting in, tall, poised, cigarette to her lips. A Harvard educated Ph.D who’s arrived to turn this 1960s juvenile prison, the setting of much of this story, into a somewhat more psychologically informed place. Dr. Saint John has got something of that classic midcentury mystery about her. She’s an unmarried, educated woman, progressive in her lifestyle, flirtatious and charismatic in ways that feel disarmingly knowing. She is fully aware of her power.
That power is one thing that Eileen, which falters, gets right. It’s a key to the tension rippling through the movie, which is primarily a study of two women: the magnetic Dr. Saint John, and the more curious, impressionable Eileen of the title. Eileen is played by Thomasin McKenzie: a twenty-something young woman trapped in ‘60s New England, flush with sexual desire, prone to daydreamy fantasies of carnal awakening and sudden violence. Eileen works at the juvenile facility in Boston with Dr. Saint John by day. At night, she labors to weather the abuses of her alcoholic father (a very good Shea Whigham), a widower and former cop who makes a point of belittling his adult daughter. Maybe it’s because of her nightly humiliations back home that Eileen is so eager to escape, mentally and otherwise. She’s all desire, all the time. She hoards and gobbles up candies when no one’s looking. She discreetly masturbates at work and even gets off to spying on kissing couples — the latter is our introduction to her. Her dad ain’t shit, but as he would ask, who is she? She’s a woman in search of an identity. Attraction to Dr. Saint John — whatever its true nature — goes some way toward giving her one.
For most of its runtime, Eileen is about the curious pull between these women. Eileen’s interest in Dr. Saint John is almost too easy to take for granted. Dr. Saint John reels her and us in by being alive with style — a mode that Hathaway, well-cast here, relishes. She breaks small rules in favor of the bigger picture, rustling the feathers of some of their coworkers at the juvenile facility while lapping up Eileen’s clear admiration. Dr. Saint John takes an interest in Eileen, who, as Mackenzie portrays her, is hardly one to hide that interest. Something so simple as asking the other woman out for a drink feels more momentous than it probably should. The key to Hathaway’s performance, working alongside the wide-eyed, bushy-tailed Mackenzie, is that her intentions are almost immediately suspect. Is there queer desire here? Is she using Eileen — and, if so, for what? There’s a side story rumbling beneath all of this, involving an inmate at the prison (Sam Nivola) in whom the doctor has taken a pointed interest. Clearly, these stories will thread themselves together eventually. Eileen is quick enough on its feet that there’s more pleasure than impatience to watching it spin its web somewhere in the direction of the obvious.
Harry Styles Wins Album of the Year in Jaw-Dropping Grammy Upset
Hip-Hop Turns 50. The Grammys Celebrate the Milestone Despite Its Complicated History With the Genre
Ted Cruz, Marjorie Taylor Greene Raise Hell Over Sam Smith's Grammys Performance
Mick Fleetwood Enlists Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt to Honor ‘Songbird’ Christine McVie at 2023 Grammys
What Eileen has to reveal is — not much. The real attraction is the getting there. For its period drapings and focus on the maybe-erotic tug between two women, the movie is already being compared to Todd Haynes’s Carol, for reasons that are almost immediately obvious when watching. Only director William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth) isn’t quite carving out the same stylistic terrain. Haynes was interested in the open secrets between women lovers; his movie gloried in the taut repression of the era only to make queer women feel that much bolder. His approach was stylized. Oldroyd’s pursuing a more straightforward tension — one that works for this movie. The film hinges on the growing question of what Dr. Saint John wants. It’s propelled by the growing sense that Eileen will satisfy whatever desire this more worldly woman has in mind.
Reckoning with the mess that eventually befalls these women isn’t as titillating as watching them weave it. Even the movie seems to know this. After a heightened spell of climactic misjudgment and confession, it all just — ends. Like a movie unsure of where to go from here. Maybe there is no “here.” The attraction of Eileen is in the set-up — in the unknowns. In the women themselves, and in their awkward, fitful ascent into a mystifying ordeal that’s full of misjudgment. Eileen wants us to notice how the psychological brick house it’s been building all along explains the outcome. But the outcome almost doesn’t matter. The real joy is in the hungers we tasted along the way.