Dir: Josephine Decker. Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman, Victoria Pedretti. 15 cert, 107 mins
Josephine Decker’s Shirley has no time for such prickly inconveniences as the truth. There is simply too much potential in the human imagination. Decker’s film is based on the life of Shirley Jackson, the great Gothic writer, but isn’t tethered to it. The real Jackson and her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, had four children; here, they have none. Jackson liked her home to be boisterous, filled with colour and light; here, she shrouds herself in solemnity, like a corpse awaiting burial.
Decker is aiming for something far more ambitious than the traditional biopic. This is a portrait, not of her life, but of her genius. The filmmaker is free to imagine, however romantically, what kind of mind could have written the lonely, dark passages of The Lottery (1948) and The Haunting of Hill House (1959) – the latter the inspiration for Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series. They also invent a muse for her. Rose (Odessa Young), and her husband, Fred (Logan Lerman), are fresh to Bennington, Vermont. They’ve been invited to stay a few days in Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) and Stanley’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) ivy-covered home, as Fred settles into his new job at the local college where Stanley holds a professorship. But Shirley suffers from what her husband refers to as “bouts” and struggles to keep up with her wifely duties; Rose soon finds herself becoming an unpaid housekeeper.
It’s a way for Decker to continue her own exploration of art as a collective, not individualistic notion, a central tenet of her previous feature Madeline's Madeline. That film saw a theatre director attempt to translate (and, more harmfully, co-opt) a young woman’s trauma for the stage. Here, it’s more of an emotional trade-off. The two women repel each other, at first. Shirley treats the situation like she’s in her own private performance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – drink in hand, she dredges up the subject of Rose’s pregnancy, which the couple had hoped to keep private. “Well, I do hope it’s yours,” she snaps at Fred, like an insolent crab. Rose tries to retreat into the arms of her husband, though she finds him distracted by his own ambitions.
It’s the small cruelties of men that eventually draw Rose and Shirley closer together. Stanley is a master manipulator, discreet in his infidelities and in the way his jealousy always comes gussied up as faux concern. Shirley isn’t up to writing another novel. Shirley shouldn’t write too many pages without submitting them to her husband for scrutiny. Stuhlbarg has an elegant way of delivering charisma that seems to sit on a knife-edge. There’s a secret terror in the feeling that, at any moment, Stanley might turn.
Shirley is sensuous and beguiling, an act of pure witchcraft. The camera twirls like Stevie Nicks in one of her shawls; it stumbles towards the characters in order to scrutinise their faces. Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen fills the screen with warm, autumnal colours, punctuated only by a few trails of cigarette smoke. Crickets and frogs serve as a nighttime chorus. Sarah Gubbins’s script, and the novel it’s based on by Susan Scarf Merrell, honour Jackson in the way she might have liked best – they turn her into one of her own characters, infatuated by the wicked and the macabre.
But Decker’s films are never straightforward when it comes to art and identity. Neither is the kinship that grows between Rose and Shirley. It’s sexual. It’s spiritual. Their identities start to intertwine and blend into each other. The film is set during the period in which Jackson was writing Hangsaman (1951), which was loosely inspired by the real-life disappearance of a Bennington college girl. In the film, the missing woman comes to Shirley in a series of Delphic visions, in which she looks uncannily like Rose (she’s played by Young, but with red-tinted hair). It takes the author back to her own unhappy youth. Rose, in turn, starts to look more and more like Shirley with every passing day – a thick, angry wedge of hair framing dark circles and blotchy skin. A rebellious spirit starts to roar inside of her.
It’s a startling transformation, partially because these actors have been cast as such ideal opposites. As Shirley, the always-excellent Moss hardens her face into a predatorial glare. Her voice sounds both coarse and intimate, like she’s inviting you in on a terrible secret. Young, on the other hand, has a cherubic voice and a sweet manner. But, when Rose confesses that Shirley’s writing makes her feel “thrillingly horrible”, you can sense an awakening on the horizon.
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