Eileen, William Oldroyd

Fantasy Made Reality in William Oldroyd’s Adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s ‘Eileen’

William Oldroyd and Thomasin McKenzie discuss sympathising with a young woman caught between fantasy and reality in the adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen.

William Oldroyd
Universal Pictures (UK) | Neon (US)
1 December 2023

Prison architect would be one way to describe director William Oldroyd. His first two features, Lady Macbeth (2016), an adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1865), and Eileen (2023), an adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 novel of the same name, offer reflections on the theme of entrapment. Oldroyd’s prisons are not literal but metaphorical ones, constructed not of brick and metal but of patriarchy, family, and loneliness.

A cold winter in a small Massachusetts town in 1964 separates Eileen from Lady Macbeth’s 19th-century England. These films are a series of convergences and divergences that nurture a thematic spiritual connection, uniting them as companion pieces. The two women’s choices offer an insight into one another, the theme of entrapment, and the struggle for freedom. 

In Lady Macbeth, Florence Pugh plays the young bride, Katherine, who is forbidden from leaving the house. She is even denied intimacy — her husband refuses to lay his hand upon her. When her husband and father-in-law Boris are called away on business, she succumbs to the inappropriate advances of groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Their torrid love affair takes on a self-preservationist instinct that compels Katherine to the act of murder to preserve her newfound freedom.

“Putting the human face in poetic motion, Lady Macbeth is a film of genuine force, striking you in the gut with a clenched fist, simultaneously seduced by its beauty while recoiling at the moral abyss,” I write in my review of Lady Macbeth. Similarly, the dreary reality of Eileen’s titular character, played by Thomasin McKenzie, has an oppressive presence. Drifting between caring for her alcoholic father (Shea Whigham), formerly the chief of police, and working at the prison, her life lacks meaning and purpose, even hope. When the new psychologist, Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), joins the prison staff, Eileen is smitten by this beautiful, intelligent, and independent woman. Her attraction to Rebecca will lead her down a shocking and violent path.  

Oldroyd first read Moshfegh’s novel in March 2020 and says the visually striking prose convinced him how it would work as a film. “Ottessa’s writing made a difference to me. I thought she captured dark humour in such an oppressive tone, and the twists and turns were so brilliant it kept me guessing.” He says he read it in one sitting. “It was one of those books you couldn’t put down. I thought if we could keep an audience engaged in the same way I was reading this book and surprise them as I had been surprised, then we’d have a great movie.”

After approaching Moshfegh and her husband and screenwriting partner Luke Goebel, the three spent the next six months adapting Moshfegh’s story. The film’s producer helped shape it further, and once McKenzie, Hathaway, Marin Ireland, and Whigham were onboard, they went through the script together, ensuring the dialogue felt natural. McKenzie remembers, “There were some changes to the script throughout the shoot, but I didn’t feel like I needed to enact many of those changes because that’s not my job.” She adds, “Unless I feel strongly, I don’t mess with the script too much.”

McKenzie changed a few words in the script she thought were too modern for the story’s setting in 1967. She focused on learning the Boston accent and matching Whigham’s speech mannerisms. “She grew up in that house with him, so she’d mimic how he would talk. There was an edginess and grittiness to the way Eileen spoke, which I liked. In the beginning, she isn’t a strong character; she’s not tough and doesn’t stand up for herself, but her way of talking is blunt.”

Eileen‘s script visually “leaped off the page” for McKenzie, who hadn’t yet read the book. “Immediately, Eileen’s tumultuous, dark, depressing, and cold environment popped out from the script. I was reading it for the character, looking to see if she was someone I could imagine myself playing. Eileen was incredibly complex, and I could sympathise with the way she was because of the environment she grew up in and the people around her. I was curious to learn more about her.”

Throughout the film, we enter Eileen’s violent fantasies or exaggerated expressions of empowerment. By the end, she’s transforming, still trying to find the balance between her social awkwardness and internal violence. For McKenzie, these are not only a way to control her environment, but are arousing, filling her dire situation with excitement. Eileen’s often abrupt and deceptively simple fantasies jolt the audience.

Oldroyd explains, “It’s one thing to read off the page what someone thinks, and Eileen is told in the first-person point-of-view, but to then try to visualise it and put it into images is very difficult. My struggle as a filmmaker is getting into a character’s mind and presenting the film from their point of view. The use of the zoom lens was one way [cinematographer] Ari Wegner and I achieved that. As an idea forms in Eileen’s mind, we would slowly be drawn towards her.” McKenzie adds, “It’s like there’s an intrigue in how Eileen sees the world, and the camera is curious to zoom in on her perspective.”

The camera and Eileen’s point-of-view becoming intertwined is essential in honouring her identity as the unreliable narrator in Moshfegh’s novel. “You begin to trust the image in the film, but it will trick you because you’ll suddenly be in one of Eileen’s dreams, but you think you’re in reality”, explains Oldroyd. “It achieves the same as what Eileen makes us think in the book, where you’re not entirely sure what is real and what’s not. I like that quality of the film because it’s true to who Eileen is.” 

If the audience is unsure, McKenzie believes so is Eileen, who lives inside her fantasy world and wants it to be real. Eileen is playful with this dichotomy, at times obvious, other times subtle. The violent fantasies are momentary tricks, whereas Eileen’s point-of-view and reality are less distinguishable in other scenes. Rebecca’s presence has an ethereal vibe, and like a dream, she appears intermittently. The pacing and rhythm of her arc, combined with Eileen’s gaze, lends her this deceptive dreamlike presence or otherworldliness.

“If people want to take away from the movie that Rebecca is, on some level, a figment of Eileen’s imagination, they can. It’s not how I made the film or what Ottessa suggested in the book, but I’m open to all interpretations.” While Oldroyd suggests he’s open to interpretation, he’s adamant about his intentions. “There’s an ambiguity that would lead some people to think that, but it wasn’t helpful to us when we made it. We had to believe those things were real, and Thomasin certainly had to think Rebecca was really there.”

He continues, “What Rebecca represents is alien to Eileen’s own world experience. Not many women went to university, let alone Harvard, to study psychology. She’s beautiful and elegant, and her outlook seems so fresh and modern for the time. I don’t know whether Eileen would necessarily have projected those things onto her. She [Eileen] just met someone so strange, like an alien who landed in this small town outside Boston. Eileen loves this and latches onto Rebecca because she’s curious about her. She adopts some of her behaviour and starts to think like Rebecca – she playacts. It’s an obsession and fascination.”

The question raised in Eileen isn’t about what’s real and what’s not. Instead, it’s about how Oldroyd provokes a specific sense of feeling that blurs this line, specifically with Rebecca. A cyclical movement between reality and Eileen’s fantasies, Rebecca shimmers in the haze of Eileen’s adoring point-of-view. It’s more of a sensory, not a dramatic distortion of reality. The film needs to honour Eileen’s dire everyday life because it’s essentially a story about whether she can escape her entrapment. 

“She’s always thinking about what an asshole her father is and how she can try to escape this sentence he’s given her,” says Oldroyd. “She’s his primary caregiver for the rest of his life. Her mother’s passed away, her sister’s gone, and Eileen is the one left with him.” Meanwhile, McKenzie sees Rebecca as a Jekyll and Hyde figure. “Given the horrible environment Eileen is living in, and how violent some of her fantasies are, even though Rebecca doesn’t take Eileen down a great path, she’s still Eileen’s saviour. Things could have gotten worse for Eileen had Rebecca not arrived when she did.”

There’s the instinct to question why Oldroyd, Moshfegh, and Goebel didn’t commit to making Eileen a less sympathetic character, perhaps resembling Linda Fiorentino’s icy-cold femme fatale in John Dahl’s The Last Seduction (1994). Eileen is on a transformative journey, and such an unsympathetic turn would be impulsive. Instead, they allow Eileen to explore her violent side, then recoil, posing the audience with an ultimatum. 

“With this character, Thomasin has created, the audience is asked to decide to what point they will empathise with her. Having spoken with people who’ve seen the film, many say we were with her up to a certain point until they would have acted differently if they were in a similar situation. But some say they’re rooting for Eileen throughout, and they would have acted in the same way. It asks a question of the audience, and it divides them”, says Oldroyd. 

Eileen is neither a heroine nor a villain. Her harsh environment has torn her down. She’s unhappy with her father and work colleagues look indignantly down on her, but she’s also not the violent person of her fantasies. Eileen is somewhere between the two, a character to be understood and not described by rudimentary words.

“It’s funny how black and white people seem to want to make the world”, says Oldroyd. “When we premiered the film at Sundance, Anne said in the Q&A, when she was starting out her career, she was asked, ‘What are you? Are you a good girl or a bad girl?’ She said she wished her response had tied in with this film – the best characters blur the line between what’s good and bad, and these are the characters we’re drawn to. We want to explore these complex characters because they’re not binary; they’re nuanced and complicated. It’s why Thomasin was drawn to this character and wanted to explore her.” He adds, “If you play an outright villain, and I don’t think Eileen is a villain, as an actor, you have to find a way to love the character. You can’t present them from the outside looking in. The skill of an actor is to find, even with the most despicable characters, some way to present them to the world in a non-judgemental way.” 

McKenzie suggests that it’s the darkness that we all have within that makes these characters identifiable. “Eileen behaves in a way that people behave when they don’t think they’re being watched. A lot of what Eileen does is relatable. She represents the darker side of humanity – the side we’re a bit ashamed of.”

Oldroyd doesn’t see Lady Macbeth and Eileen only as stories about women trapped by patriarchy, family, and loneliness. In his mind, their relatability transcends gender identity. “We are all products of our time, and we wouldn’t be making these movies if we weren’t living in the time we’re in,” he says. The portrayals of these characters are respected and welcomed. People have warmed to Katherine and Eileen. These are not just young women, but young people that audiences can engage with and see themselves in these characters.”

Eileen screened in the ‘Dare’ strand of the 67th BFI London Film Festival. It is released in cinemas in the UK by Universal Pictures and in the US by Neon on 1 December 2023.