The problems – perhaps better to say challenges – of William Oldroyd’s follow-up to Lady Macbeth are the same as those presented by Ottessa Moshfegh’s source novel. Both brilliantly summon up a fetid version of the American mid-1960s and a plausible personification of escape. Thomasin McKenzie is purse-mouthed and turned-in as Eileen, a young woman surviving indifferently as a clerical worker in a New England prison. In virtually the first scene we see her ramming handfuls of snow down her crotch to quell frustrated passions (a characteristic Moshfegh moment). Her dad is a bully. Her workmates are unfriendly.
One surprising day, the outer world imposes itself in the person of a properly glamorous psychologist named Rebecca. It is Anne Hathaway in all her regal demeanour. Ari Wegner’s camera catches the smoky fug of a hopeless nowhere at Christmas. Hathaway and McKenzie inevitably call up memories of Todd Haynes’s Carol as they circle one another in a grimy dive bar. You can practically taste the stale nicotine. The film, like the book, closes with a sickening revelation that allows a hitherto tertiary character a chilling extended monologue. There is something of a Grimms’ fairy story about the ending, but it’s uglier, testier, less at home to allegory. All involved embrace the opportunity with glee.
The problem (or challenge) is that these two parts don’t quite go together. There is a feeling of being grabbed by the collar and dragged into a hedge while strolling uneasily down a lonely path. Perhaps that’s a good thing. The adaptation by Moshfegh and Luke Goebel is faithful to a fault, but it launches the tonal shift earlier in the story. That makes the drama seem more balanced. It also allows less opportunity to prepare the ground. At any rate, for all the narrative clanks, Eileen never lets up on its accumulation of atmosphere and its testing of the peculiar core relationship. There is a lot here about how female sexual desire is repressed and sublimated. There is an implied, though not exactly hopeful, treatise on the promise of the later 1960s. Not every risk pays off. But all were worth taking.
Eileen is in cinemas from Friday, December 1st