Eileen takes place in a mysterious and claustrophobic New England prison-townTom Blackout via Unsplash

*Contains spoilers*

An adaptation can only be as successful as its inspiration. After all, it is essential that adaptors remain faithful to their source material. Thus, although it was encouraging to see William Oldroyd’s Eileen cling so tightly to the cornerstones of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel, the film was let down by the poor structure of the book.

Eileen is the story of a mousy, introverted prison secretary who is pulled out of her shell by a glamorous visiting counsellor, Rebecca Saint John. The film expertly reproduces Moshfegh’s claustrophobic New England prison-town with the help of cinematographer Ari Wegner and production designer Craig Lathrop. Each streetlight feels like a warm refuge amid the darkness, much like Rebecca’s mop of Hitchcock-blonde hair, which enchants Eileen as the only interesting thing in her town. Shea Whigham delivers a reliable performance as an alcoholic, abusive father to Thomasin McKenzie’s Eileen, making the world around her ever dimmer for Anne Hathaway’s Rebecca to shake up.

Eileen is the story of a mousy, introverted prison secretary who is pulled out of her shell by a glamorous visiting counsellorYouTube (Film4)

Arguably, Eileen works better as a film than a novel. Moshfegh’s work contains much of the desperation of a debut, which Oldroyd cuts out to produce a sharper story. In the book, Moshfegh describes an Eileen who is obsessed with Rebecca’s lush maturity but reserves her sexual urges for thinly-sketched male characters. In the film, her sexual urges and ambition merge more effectively: the pair flirt in hallways and a golden-lensed dive bar; Eileen spends time in Rebecca’s office, soaking her in.

When Rebecca traps a mother whom she suspects of wronging her imprisoned child, the film again diverges from the novel: Rebecca’s panicked shooting of Mrs Polk becomes Eileen’s frustrated cowing of an unwilling confessor; Mr and Mrs Polk become active participants in covering up Mr Polk’s paedophilia.

“Each streetlight feels like a warm refuge amid the darkness”

Oldroyd’s changes to Moshfegh’s work are intriguing, allowing for competent work by the actors that hints at a better story underneath. Marin Ireland’s third-act work as Mrs Polk is a high point of the film, revealing the depravity people will sink to for comfort. Such ideas are worth greater exploration but the film is forced to wrap everything up neatly due to the burden of adapting existing property. The film spends all its runtime aching for an implosion which never comes, leaving the viewer unsatisfied.

Speaking of ache, Oldroyd’s adaptation ups the ante on the novel’s homoerotic subtext, making obvious the attraction between Rebecca and Eileen, which the novel presents as deriving from the difference in their socio-economic and professional backgrounds. In the book, Rebecca is older, behaves and dresses richer and has a Harvard degree. In the film, their relationship is more aesthetically romantic: Eileen stares at Rebecca across a dimly lit room, Rebecca divulges seductive nothings about psychotherapy as Eileen strains to be nearer. The kiss (another addition!) is half in shadow, Eileen raising a disbelieving hand to her lips as Rebecca whirls away.

“In this snow globe of homoromanticism, there is nothing tangibly emotional”

Yet, in this snow globe of homoromanticism, there is nothing tangibly emotional. Moments of closeness are staged for maximum beauty rather than emotional impact. Rebecca’s rejection doesn’t garner any reaction from Eileen. For a story that relies so heavily upon its protagonist’s off-putting personality, Eileen (both novel and film) does barely anything to sicken its audience. All of Eileen’s actions are easily explained by youthful obsession and none are particularly shocking. Even the gunshot to Mrs Polk is non-fatal and her eventual death happens off-screen. It’s a flaw that is baked into the story and adapting the novel without it would require structural changes.


Mountain View

Poor Things stitches together a beautiful monster

These constructional problems undermine the film’s potential. All its components are beautifully capable, from the cinematography and production design to the deliciously evocative score by Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire fame. Yet, the actors can only do so much with a script that never confronts them with genuine conflict. Hathaway’s third-act work as Rebecca – a woman wavering when faced with real, uncontained criminality – is diminished by how unearned it seems. We never see her interact with the prisoners she works with and her anxiousness seems implausible for a woman who has previously invaded someone’s house. McKenzie, who is best remembered for playing the wounded-queer-bird archetype in Todd Haynes’ Carol, is efficient as Eileen but rarely striking. Nevertheless, Eileen has her moments. Her smooth movement to pick up a gun and point it at Rebecca is a powerful moment that lingers in memory. It’s an enjoyable change from her persona during the rest of the film and hotly revealing. However, the action is meaningless without follow-through.

Eileen is a perfectly serviceable watch if you’re a Moshfegh fan or if you like your Hitchcock-inspired romances without any of the meaty emotional investment that makes Hitchcock films both excellent adaptations and enduring works of art on their own merits. However, I remain hopeful for more sexy, messy lesbian thrillers in 2024 so you and I don’t settle for shadows.