Shirley is an exquisitely made slow-burn psychological drama that throws the rules for biopics out of the window with its fictional retelling of a specific and devilish time in author Shirley Jackson’s life, showing us that sometimes Jackson was as deviant as some of her stories, whilst also staying true to the themes she often explored in her own writing.
Indeed, Josephine Decker’s film based from a novel of the same name is replete with all the anxiety and mistrust of society, treachery of women, female sacrifice, gothic sensibilities and rapidly unravelling mental states that anyone familiar with Jackson’s work will be familiar with, but it also manages to shine a light on very modern concerns.
The story focuses on Shirley Jackson (Elizabeth Moss), who is suffering from writer’s block, and her controlling academic husband Hyman (Michael Stuhlberg) housing new teaching assistant Fred (Logan Lerman) and his newlywed and pregnant wife Rose (Odessa Young) in their rickety and creaky home, and the situation becomes a pressure cooker of declining mental states, particularly for poor, naïve Rose.
Decker’s direction is extremely polished with visually disorientating, often out of focus, lingering shots combined with more frantic moments, as well as dream sequences and segues in magical realism which all help to build up the growing suspense and hysteria surrounding the four central cast members beautifully
Shirley is a horror film, but all the scary things take place under the surface, or inside the minds of our characters. However, its true strength lies in the extraordinarily disconcerting and nuanced performance from powerhouse Moss who physically creates a monster of a woman in Shirley Jackson, she’s formidable, unpredictable, cruel, but at times also tender, affectionate and caring.
We learn, as the film unfolds, that Shirley and Hyman are deliberately playing with their young guests. Shirley takes delight in torturing Rose, bullying her and then taking her under her wing, Hyman is cruel to the eager Fred, and deliberately sabotages his attempts to progress in his career, Stuhlberg nailing the smarmy intellectual superiority of his character. This is something of a bonding experience for the older intelligent couple who see most other human beings as beneath them, contemptible and there to be manipulated and abused for fun.
But crucially, through the great chemistry Moss and Young have with each other, we see that Shirley and Rose are kindred spirits. Shirley, who famously struggled with agoraphobia, is ostracized because of the content of her stories and Rose, who also has a dark edge, is struggling with the conformity of being the perfect housewife and expectant mother. The extraordinary scene where Rose eats a potentially deadly mushroom at Shirley’s insistence and the slow seduction and brief relationship between the pair displays this.
Consequently, they are the same woman during different stages of the awareness of the gender roles they’re supposed to inhabit and how their darkness doesn’t fit in with the conventional ideal of a female.
In fact, Shirley, for all her intelligence and power and strength is reduced to a childlike invalid in her interactions with Hyman, who, is quietly abusive in a passive sense. He doesn’t beat her or raise his voice, but he is patronising, condescending and dismissive of her, he controls and mollycoddles her with his love and care.
We see towards the latter stages of the film that she is still bound and enthralled by his opinion. Decker gives us a long, lingering shot of Shirley powerlessly waiting for her husband’s feedback on her latest story. It’s subtle but through both the direction, and Moss’ performance, Shirley becomes someone torn between her role as a wife, enjoyment of the games she plays and her physical and emotional needs.
As such, Shirley is many things. It’s a feminist leaning indictment of men and their oppressiveness, with both Shirley and Rose stunted by their husbands. It’s a comment on gender roles and how women are expected to stay away from the morbid and the macabre. It’s an exploration of mental health. It’s a comment on class and status, with the mean-spiritedness of intellectuals delighting in playing with people deemed beneath them, and how the upper class, and wealthy are vampires preying on the perceived mediocre youth around them, with Shirley finding inspiration for her story as Rose deteriorates. It’s an ode to outcasts. It’s a biopic that throws the rules for biopics out of the window. It’s so many things.
By the time the film has concluded, and we discover that Shirley and Hyman’s manipulations have had disastrous consequences for Rose and Fred’s family as we see the older couple dancing in celebration juxtaposed with the haunting image of Rose’s body post-suicide all of these themes are neatly summed up. This conclusion is uncomfortable, untidy and morbid, but in a way that is perfectly befitting of a story involving Shirley Jackson, with the sacrifice of a transformed woman.
It’s worth watching for Moss’ performance alone, but an incredibly strong cast around her, great direction and an incredibly subtle psychodrama of a story that acts as a great tribute to the author it’s about makes Shirley a thoroughly interesting and enjoyable film
Please check out our reviews for the rest of the horror films that screened at London Film Festival this year here