Shirley (2020)

Rates: * * * * 1/2

Why Did I Watch It? New release with all of the buzz.

Cast, crew, etc.

On a stuffy university campus in 1950s America, Shirley Jackson stands out. The ‘New Yorker’ has just published a story of hers that has caused a minor sensation, and she has become something of a fringe celebrity. She is also an alcoholic, an agoraphobe and a misanthrope. An original, in other words; one who faces an ongoing battle to translate her unusual mindscape into creative expression.

Someone sits down to write a story. What are their inspirations? It might be real events, something they’ve read about. Whatever the plot, they won’t be able to keep themselves out of it; this is human nature, and part of what gives every writer their own style. But how much of it will be them? And who else from their own lives will they include? What role does imagination play? Some of it will be made up entirely, which parts? And these imaginary elements, will they be based on real things or just daydreams?

This complicated balancing act is at the heart of ‘Shirley’, a based on true story about the writing of Jackson’s novel ‘Hangsamen’.

A young couple move in with Jackson and her husband; Fred (Logan Lerman), an ambitious professor looking for a mentor, and Rose (Odessa Young), an uncertain wife and soon to be mother, who becomes Jackson’s carer. They find a household straight out of a gothic horror novel; dark, gloomy, and pulsing with weird energy.

The two women clash at first, later they bond over their frustrations with the patriarchal environment they are forced to inhabit (the two men bond over their shared enjoyment of adultery). They also influence each others behaviour, ‘Persona’ style; Rose becomes more confident and less accomodating, Shirley returns to her writing desk.

She is working on a story based on the disappearance of a young student, who appears in visionary sequences that look like an adult version of Red Riding Hood. As the work progresses, Jackson blends this with aspects of Rose’s life, the two people, real and imaginary, blurring in her imagination. Later, we see a wider perspective that raises a bunch of questions; how much of anything that we just watched actually occurred? Did Rose commit suicide? Did she and her husband separate? Was this all just in Jackson’s head?

Your answers will be your own. Much like Jackson’s mentality shapes her novel, so yours will shape how you decipher this movie.

Critical darling Jospehine Decker brings an equally distinctive touch to the presentation; the film is shot in such a way that the backgrounds, and sometimes the foregrounds, are blurred. Your attention is drawn to what she chooses to depict clearly, which shifts about and gives the movie a dreamlike rhythm. The film is also exceptionally well shot by Norwegian DP Sturla Brandth Grovlen; who livens up the shadowy interiors of the house where most of the action takes place, and punctuates these with some boldly coloured exterior sequences.

At the centre of the film is Elizabeth Moss, in one of her best roles. As an actress she has a wide range, which serves her well with this character; Jackson is moody and difficult, and sometimes charming, and sometimes insightful. A hard woman to know, equally difficult to portray, and Moss is up to the task. There is one dynamite scene where Moss, bored at a party, pours wine all over an expensive couch, and the hostess is more horrified that she doesn’t know how to clean it up, then that she has actually done it. Stulhbarg is also excellent as her narcissistic husband, and their shared dynamic is potent; one review I read compared them to a couple of trolls cackling under a bridge, which sums it up.

A stimulating and atypical film, and a showcase for some top flight talent on both sides of the camera.

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