SHIRLEY: FILM REVIEW
I’ve long argued that Elisabeth Moss should be considered one of the greatest actresses of this decade. While much of her work involves television series, most notably Mad Men and Handmaid’s Tale, she has engaged in nothing but stellar performances in movies such as The Square, The Invisible Man, and most recently, Shirley. However, even her roles in television are advanced and difficult to execute; not everyone can embody the development of Peggy Olson and Offred as Elisabeth Moss can. Similarly, Elisabeth Moss’ portrayal of the horror writer Shirley Jackson in Shirley is what ultimately advances this film from great to daring. It’s incredible -- Moss consumes Jackson’s messy bun, alcoholic tendencies, and depressive moods as second nature.
Shirley is based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel Shirley, which told a fictional story of real-life horror writer Shirley Jackson and her husband Stanley Hyman. In the film and novel, Stanley’s new teaching assistant, Fred, and Fred’s wife, Rose, come to live with them in North Bennington. Shirley plays out the dynamics between Shirley, Stanley, Fred, and Rose, as the four subside under the same roof, eat dinner together, and participate in academia. Throughout the course of the film, Shirley’s consummation with writing becomes overwhelming as she ropes Rose into a new novel she hopes to write about the disappearance of a local girl named Paula. Shirley’s imagination of Paula becomes intertwined with real life Rose, as reality and fictional story become blurred for both women.
I’m extremely appreciative of this film’s highlight of women as the main protagonists. While Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent as Stanley, and Logan Lerman as a well-meaning husband (although still fresh in my young mind as Percy Jackson), the two male characters play supporting roles. Stanley has an uncomfortable attraction to Rose, and Fred becomes obsessed with rising the ranks of academia. Both Stanley and Shirley use the newlywed couple for their own personal agenda; Stanley gives Fred “enough rope to hang himself,” while Shirley manipulates Rose into doing chores around the house by masking their relationship as a special friendship.
Shirley is definitely not a movie for everyone. The plot is not particularly fast-paced and largely plateaus throughout the film. However, director Josephine Decker (best known for Madeline’s Madeline), is an expert at portraying Shirley’s psychological struggle, while tracing Rose’s slow, but sure demise as the two women spend more time together. At one point, Rose even writes Paula’s name in a slip of paper found tucked in her library book, as she tries to convince Shirley that Paula borrowed the book once before. Although quivers of sexual tension grow between Shirley and Rose, this film is not about that. Its focus is rather on the transformation of two women, one more radical than the other, as they navigate between fact and fiction through writing. The stark difference between the two women becomes apparent when Rose tries to manipulate Shirley, only to have her respond with, “I know who my husband is sleeping with. Do you?” She doesn’t. Throughout the film, Shirley and Rose always seem to teeter between life and death; reality and dream. By the end, the scale finally tips.