Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie steam up the screen in William Oldroyd’s period noir


Source: Sundance Film Festival


Dir: William Oldroyd. US. 2023. 97 mins.

There’s not a spare millimetre of fat on the lean and well-oiled muscle of William Oldroyd’s noir-inflected tale of obsession that fully confirms the talent he showed in his 2016 debut Lady Macbeth. From impressive visual storytelling to its evocation of the 1960s, taut plotting and its central performances, this adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel by the author and her husband Luke Goebel runs through its psychological thriller beats with dark humour and style.

The shadow of an unreliable narrator is always being cast

All of that should mean it has no trouble acquiring wide distribution after its premiere at Sundance Film Festival.

Smoke rolling into a car hints at the trouble to come before we meet Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie), who is going through the motions of a dead-end existence in snowy Massachusetts. Her days revolve around working as a secretary at the local juvenile boys prison before swapping out her retired cop father’s (Shea Wigham) two empty bottles of liquor for fresh ones. Rather than be grateful, he is a constant source of putdowns, when he’s not drunkenly terrorising the neighbourhood by waving his gun about.

Eileen’s life is punctuated by brief moments of fantasy that suggest darker thoughts are running through her head. Oldroyd later uses these to snap the audience to attention on more than one occasion, and in retrospect, given that the whole film is presented from Eileen’s point of view, they could be even more slippery than they first appear. 

Things change with the arrival of new prison shrink Rebecca Saint John (Anne Hathaway, smouldering). The older woman’s sharp suits and perfect hair and make-up are every inch the femme fatale and the polar opposite of Eileen’s mousy look, which majors in oversized embroidered knitwear. Rebecca begins to take an interest in the case of inmate Lee Polk (Sam Nivola), who has killed his own policeman father, at the same time as sparking up a friendship with Eileen that will soon become an obsession for the younger woman. 

McKenzie has long been getting plaudits for her skills in everything from Leave No Trace to Justice For Bunny King and she gets to showcase them again as she deftly indicates there’s a lot more to Eileen than first meets the eye. She also subtly shows the changes that come over the 24-year-old, sparked by a first night out with Rebecca. She shaves everywhere - including, in one of the film’s astute comic observations - her big toes, and dresses up in one of her mum’s frocks and coats, applying the sort of blue eye shadow a teenager might when first starting out.

The heat she and Hathaway generate between one another is so strong that it’s a wonder Rebecca’s martini doesn’t start to steam, as a dance scene evokes the kind of sapphic desire of Todd Haynes’ Carol, but the shadow of an unreliable narrator is always being cast. As the noir elements deepen, there’s also a subtle shift so that by the time the film reaches its climax even the cardigan and killer dress have changed hands. 

Full of deliciously dark surprises, this is also a film to be savoured for its craft. The mood benefits from careful framing of Eileen when she is inside houses, so that she looks as though she is being hemmed in by them, and the golden chiaroscuro cinematographer Ari Wegner deploys for the night scenes, in contrast to the bright, sharp winter daytimes. As previously noted, Olga Mill’s costume design unscores the characters’ development, while Richard Reed Parry’s jazz-inflected score adds to the increasingly noir vibe. The writers are also generous with the minor characters and are richly rewarded in terms of character performances from Wigham and Marin Ireland as Lee’s mother.

Oldroyd attacks with a pace that makes his plot twists more shocking and shows an economy that harks back to the golden age of noir. Let’s hope he also picks up the pace with which he moves from project to project, as this sort of talent deserves to be seen more often. 

Production companies: Likely Story, Film4

International sales: WME

Producers: Anthony Bregman, Stefanie Azpiazu, Peter Cron, Luke Goebel, Ottessa Moshfegh, William Oldroyd

Screenplay: Luke Goebel, Ottessa Moshfegh

Cinematography: Ari Wegner

Production design: Craig Lathrop

Editing: Nick Emerson

Music: Richard Reed Parry

Main cast: Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway, Shea Whigham, Marin Ireland, Owen Teague