Written by Sarah Gubbins, and based on the book by Susan Scarf Merrell, Director Josephine Decker’s Shirley is a peculiar biopic (of sorts), with more than a twist of the unconventional. Her central character is the real-life Shirley Jackson, an American author who was famed for her inventive and atmospheric Gothic horror writing, creating the likes of The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House – the latter rightly considered one of the finest ghost stories ever written.
Decker’s film concentrates on Shirley herself, exquisitely portrayed by Elisabeth Moss, who is struggling with writing a new novel. But when newlyweds Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) come to stay – as Fred is a wannabe English professor and Shirley’s husband Stanley is one at a posh college – she turns to Rose as inspiration for a character she’s trying to create in one of her mysterious thrillers.
We’re introduced to the young couple on a train to their destination, Rose is reading The Lottery – so is aware of who they’re going to visit – and they’re presented as being very in love, so much so that she coerces her new husband into the bathroom for sex. Once they arrive, the film is shot in a way which suggests they’re separate from the world around them, it’s somewhat disorientating with extreme close-ups of people they meet, with an small essence of Mother!, as if they’re delving into a life that understands itself, before they’ve had a chance to realise what they’re in for, in a foreshadowing sense.
Here we first meet Elisabeth Moss’s Shirley, who is withdrawn from the party going on around her but also sharp, charged up and possesses a piercing intellect when challenged. She’s intentionally argumentative, even scathing, forcing her opinion across and game for a fight. Maybe, later, this will be realised as a defensive technique, but it’s also evident she stands knowingly apart from the ‘normal’ everyday, something she finds dull and meaningless. In time, it’s suggested that she might have mental health issues but I’m never quite convinced she’s that crazy, just battling with self-confidence as any creative person will be, as well as living a life that challenges her work all the time.
On the flipside, and our other lead, is Odessa Young’s initially naïve Rose. When she arrives, she expects certain things of her new world but doesn’t realise she’ll end up basically being a maid, while her husband goes off to college to teach. While at first Shirley and Rose collide in every respect of their personas, as the story develops they become great friends, intellectual equals who inspire each other, but also use their minds and sensuality as a force to control, something Rose learns in abundance.
Even though the leads are absolutely exceptional, as is Michael Stuhlbarg’s husband Stanley, the film doesn’t always captivate as much as I’d hoped and I tended to lose focus amongst the imagery of dream-like states that may, or may not, always be real. There’s an unsteady balance of probable chaos always lingering beneath the surface, yes, but there is also uncertainty over whether this is all in her head, if we’re living a story within a story, or we’re making up our own visualisations from her desire for a lead character. So while I didn’t think it always captured the attention, I felt that Rose and Shirley hold the film together and in a bizarre way could have done without Fred and even Stuhlbarg’s Stanley, despite his complex relationship with Shirley.
Shirley is packed with wonderful one-liner’s though, entwined into the very welcome dark comedic elements, and you’ll witness true female liberation from a world that’s trying to restrict them, which is always worth celebrating. It’s a strange feeling that accompanies the finale and trust me, I’m no stranger to the eccentric, but this wasn’t always as satisfying as it initially promises to be.