Cinema Review: Shirley | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Wednesday, September 30th, 2020  


Studio: Neon
Directed by Josephine Decker

Jun 01, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Elisabeth Moss makes for uncomfortable company in Josephine Decker’s fiery portrayal of writer Shirely Jackson.

What is the sign of a good biopic? Is it treading a person’s life story step by step? Is it being placed in their shoes and living through them? Or is it—as Josephine Decker seems to think—about encapsulating the life and works of a person by looking into a small window and seeing a specific, defining moment? Writer Shirely Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) may have had many more life defining periods that the one portrayed in Shirley, but what this vigorously told portion of her life does is act as a thrilling chamber-piece that allows Decker to hone in on this detail of Shirley Jackson’s persona.

We join Shirley and husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) via newlyweds Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young) as they arrive at the couple’s beautiful home in Vermont. Fred has come to Bennington College to join professor Stanley as a mentee and has brought along pregnant wife Rose in hope of gaining a job at the college. Stanley later offers bed and board at his home in exchange for helping out with household chores to help combat Shirley’s bouts of despondency whilst she tries to write. A tentative Rose accepts helping out and is soon thrust into the trials and tribulations of living with Shirley Jackson.

After initially finding Shirley’s neurotic behaviour an impossibility, Rose gains an interest in Shirley's current work: a novel about a missing girl at the college. (It is worth noting that the book by Susan Scarf Merrell that Shirely is based on is set during 1964, while the film is set around the writing of Jackson’s 1951 novel Hangsaman, a repositioning of events that one can only assume took place to save Moss a physical transformation and to give her a wonderful array of 50s shirts.)

Though the more intimately experienced dynamic is between Shirley and Rose, the relationship between Shirley and Stanley is the key to the psychodrama going on around them. Shirley’s success as a writer and Stanley’s pride as a literary critic make for a relationship that needs the conflict of artist and critic as much as it wishes to be free of it. Stanley uses Shirley’s fractured personality and testing nature as a way to veil his own seemingly eccentric and inappropriate behavior and disguise himself as the “normal” one or a person who can nourish Shirley in her time of need. “You’d die without him... that’s the only reason he stays,” says one of Stanley’s admirers (and lovers). It’s a damning instance of how Stanley wants to be seen: heroic, caring, giving. But it is Stanley who dictates Shirley’s moods and pressures her work like a pushy parent to a reluctant young athlete.

As Shirley finds herself distancing from Stanley, and Rose from the ambitious Fred, the two women finding themselves getting closer. This is where Shirley starts to take the shape not of a biopic but of an imagined adaptation of something Jackson may have written. There’s a lurking horror, a faux ghost story to the forming bond between Shirley and Rose. There’s a maternal paranoia and Freudian uncertainty building between the two where reality and fiction mingle. The way in which Decker draws the parallels between Jackson’s life and works is told with a beautiful assuredness. The camera literally and figuratively gets as close to Jackson as possible whilst blurring out the reality around her. Tamar-kali’s score of fidgeting strings lends a lyrical bounce to the dialogue. Decker plays with her visual form to allow for as much poetic and literary room as she can gain and the result is a truly Jackson-fied slice of life. Shirley can be at times a frightening pressure-cooker of a film. But it always remains a fine example of what it means to be an artist. What it might have meant to be Shirley Jackson.   


Author rating: 8.5/10

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