It is an undeniable fact that famed author Shirley Jackson was an undisputed titan of her craft. Her horror and mystery tales have sent shivers down the spines of millions of readers, with the most ubiquitous and acclaimed of her works, The Haunting of Hill House, widely considered one of the best ghost stories published in the 20th century. Unfortunately, sometimes such genius can come at a cost, whether that be a mental price or painful personal background. Josephine Decker’s Shirley adapts Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same title into a visual rollercoaster, unlocking the door into the effulgent mind of the writer with a fictitious subplot that feasts on the cracked reality of Jackson’s universe.
This biographical drama is stocked with a glittering cast featuring Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlberg, Odessa Young and Logan Lerman. The narrative follows young couple Fred (Lerman) and Rosie Nemser (Young) as they arrive at Bennington College to start a new life together. After beginning a job at the university Fred befriends Professor Stanley Hyman (Stuhlberg), who invites them to stay at the home he shares with his wife Shirley (Moss), a critically acclaimed writer who at the time is suffering from severe writer’s block. Her latest inspiration for a novel is the local story of a young woman who recently disappeared from Bennington’s campus. In an attempt to clear the blockades in her mind, Shirley and her husband begin to psychologically drive a wedge between the Nemsers; her visions and mental state become clearer as the torment prevails.
An increasingly strange duo to behold, Moss and Stuhlberg carry this twisting and hallucinogenic whirlwind of a narrative by proving to be absolutely absorbing on screen together. Moss is as maniacally electrifying as the unhinged Shirley Jackson, with powerful facial expressions that tell half the tale on their own. In every scene, her presence is accompanied by an endearing excitement, all eyes unblinking in anticipation of what deranged move she will make next. Likewise, Stuhlberg is exceptionally peculiar in this fitting role, given free rein to make the character as slimy, frightening and agitatedly playful as he possibly can. Together, the actors are a coup de maître who ooze deception – their fleeting physical actions as raucous as their minds. There’s an intriguing question underlying their performances, unbeknown to Young and the audience: whom is it that they are really deceiving?
Visually, the sets are quite amazing. Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cinematography is breathtaking, with jaw-dropping landscape shots that contrast with the suffocating claustrophobia of the house. The film is abstract in its presentation, jumping from reality to Shirley’s imagination with a dream-like quality that wonderfully displays her unstable mindset and keeps the viewer on their toes throughout. While this style often aligns viewers with Rosie’s perspective, it can admittedly make one feel distanced from the other. Typical of the suspense genre, the plink-plunk of violin strings creates a haunting, disconcerting feeling in every room, but this is taken further as it transforms into a fully embellished score when the narrative accelerates and Shirley’s mind becomes clearer.
Seductive elements, including scenes of sexual tension and powerful lust, broaden the strokes of the narrative with writing that is helplessly alluring; treating the viewer like one of Shirley’s fictitious pawns in her novels. More poignantly, amongst the movie’s waves of madness there are moments of powerful dialogue, such as one outburst about stories liberating silenced women and remembering those who will be forgotten and unrecognised by time. This is just one of the touching messages embedded within this enthralling drama.
Shirley is released nationwide on 30th October 2020.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2020 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.
Watch the trailer for Shirley here: