THE STORY – Fred and Rose move to a small Vermont college town in pursuit of a job for Fred as an assistant professor of literature. The young couple receives an offer for free room and board from professor Stanley Hyman, as long as Rose agrees to spend time cleaning up the home and looking after his wife, acclaimed horror author Shirley Jackson. At first Fred and Rose detest the rocky household of the eccentric couple, but they eventually establish deep bonds with their counterparts, which will test the limits of their young love.
THE CAST – Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman & Odessa Young
THE TEAM – Josephine Decker (Director) & Sarah Gubbins (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 107 Minutes
By Elle Haywood
Plunged head first into a thrillingly head-spinning story, is Josephine Decker’s take on the novelist Shirley Jackson, in a film that will seduce you into a blend of real life, the ethereal and the deep within the dark pages of her books. With a stellar team behind the scenes, including executive producer Martin Scorsese and screenplay writer Sarah Gubbins adapting Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel – “Shirley” is an enticing and exciting piece set to entice audiences.
A young couple, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young) move to Vermont, and more specifically, into Shirley’s house with her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). Fred is due to assist Hyman as a budding professor himself at the local college, while Rose stays with Shirley until she finds her feet in the new town. Shirley is very much a recluse from the town’s society and social circles; as gossip swills about her mindset, with her work not garnering much popularity due to its scary nature, which Rose slowly begins to unpick the truth behind the longer they spend in each other’s company. Set in an idyllic American suburb, cloaked in the warm aesthetic of autumnal leaves; the suffocation of small-town life is apparent, with the husband’s swooning the affections of their students, spurring on their wives frustrations, and yet out of this toxicity, their friendships and self-belief blossoms.
It is apparent Shirley is branded with the traits of being regarded difficult, complex and teasing, but not out of childishness, but an adamant belief in her own words and thoughts – it is a poignant expression of her autonomy during a period in time which the female success was questioned before celebrated. This is perhaps what Rose is drawn to; Shirley is the match lighting Rose’s ticker of wanting to escape the doting role of supporting her husband and focus on her own work. In Decker’s previous work, including “Madeline’s Madeline,” there is a core thematic surrounding friendships, female desire, and resistance to dominant patriarchy. It plays upon warped realities, the non-diegetic voice of Shirley narrating brief scenes from her books, in which one of her new character’s embodies how she hopes Rose will blossom as her voice grows. There isn’t a cuddly warmth surrounding the relationship, it is sharp and challenging; which are factors many people choose to ignore in growth, and the men begin to fade into the back of the audience’s mind as we allow the women to fill the screen in the thoughts, feelings, and passions about the world.
What feels so moving and gripping is Shirley’s defiance against being patronized, mocked and ridiculed for her personality and her work. She embraces the intricate and immersive ways her mind works; the edges of the shot fraying and blurring during moments when she becomes overwhelmed, and during character creation building in her head. This visualization of her inner voice is subtle yet effective in allowing viewers to understand her thought process. While she may come across to others as eccentric or odd – it is complimentary to be regarded as weird in a world where society’s copycat sheep-flocking behavior demonstrates fears of individuality. Shirley’s periods of depression, sly comments and days spent furiously writing are all strong personality traits that shape the way she writes and allows the depths of her stories to touch and engage readers so deeply because of her ability to literate the human soul. It’s what helps her friendship with Rose to flourish; in one way because she shapes her protagonist of the book around her, but also because Rose feels understood by Shirley. She’s sensitive to the harsh remarks about her rushed wedding to prick, and takes time for her to adjust to the chaotic nature of the household – but finds female solidarity in her relationship with the writer.
The household itself is a battle of personalities; everyone evidently wanting validation from each other and their acquaintances outside the house. With their marriage being far from normality, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) enjoys his adoration by other colleagues in the school and isn’t ashamed of declaring this around Shirley in a taunting manner, in which her response of causing a scene actually feels fully justifiable when she is being treated this way. Similarly, for Rose – while she is smitten and supportive of her husband’s ventures, she is also consciously aware of wanting to follow her own ambitions and celebrate her autonomous success. However, her sex is constantly derided as being the “little wifey” – with both women actually have successful careers; yet is sniffed at as being meagerly fanciful by their other halves. The tonality of the narrative mirrors the essence emerging from her books, the individuality of each character is carved meticulously and their good and bad natures juxtapose each other to reflect their humanity. The stylization is also perfectly crafted, displaying Rose’s abundant youthfulness in bright outfits mellowing to faded pastels as the harsh realities of life take over, to Shirley’s eccentric classic style as she grasps onto the tiny moments of public confidence that she retreats from normally. Every anxiety is felt and understood, understanding about the successes and failings we all face.
“Shirley” is indulgently delightful in terms of being permitted into the fiercely private world of an author, or as much as a cinematic depiction of it can portray. Yet it is also inherently frustrating when having to endure the prevailing arrogance of men during this period, and the sparks of joy when the women of the film push back in the only ways they can. Elizabeth Moss is truly wonderful in terms of her detailed character study and gentleness with this type of biographical film. It navigates the pain that artists go through, of deciding what form – be it short article or book – that their story will take, the process of ‘killing your darlings’ along the way and, as Shirley so eloquently demonstrates; the power in trusting your gut about your work, succumbing to the writing process in which you work best and the never-ending courage in wanting your work to have a place in the world.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Excelling performances that look at the complexities of characters that don’t demonize their fragilities, but support their rebellion against their circumstances and portray the process of creating art as a woman.
THE BAD – It is not critical enough of the context behind Shirley and Stanley’s marriage, which puts them upon equal footing when in fact he had not just emotional, but financial control over her life and work.
THE FINAL SCORE – 8/10