From a script by Sarah Gubbin, who adapted a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, whose story was based on the prolific horror author Shirley Jackson, Josephine Decker’s fourth feature is – to say the least – a multi-layered affair. Demanding patience and perseverance, we dig down through agoraphobia, heavy drinking and airs of intellectual superiority in search of the essence of the person behind the writer in question.
This is both the intrigue and the frustration of Shirley, a film that is simultaneously alluring and aloof. Not one to play to type or genre, Decker has crafted a delirious, off-kilter, wickedly dark biopic where, perhaps, lifting the lid, or rather peering tentatively into the mind, of the subject is not the principal objective. But rather this is a much broader examination of the creative process, of obsession, jealousy, paranoia – and the toll these all take on a high-functioning, but troubled psyche.
Set in late 1940s Vermont, Shirley also explores womanhood, motherhood and the significance of gender roles, upending the given thinking of the time that men wore the proverbial trousers. Earlier this year, Decker gave Criteron her ‘Top 10’ films list; were you to pour Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Harold and Maude by Hal Ashby, Godard’s Contempt, and Jules et Jim by Truffaut into a pot and stir them around for a while, you would come close to achieving the bubbling concoction she creates with her latest film.
Throw in a dash of Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and it is Shirley (another triumphant turn of blood, sweat and tears by Elisabeth Moss) and her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) who welcome young newlyweds Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) into their North Bennington home. Fred is to take up a position at the university where Stanley teaches and – having recently eloped with her now husband – Rose prepares for the birth of their child. The pregnancy intuited by an unexplained sixth sense at one of several devilishly awkward dinner table conversations, Shirley’s psychic navel-gazing keys in to mystery surrounding the enigmatic writer.
If local hearsay and twitching curtains suggest that the reclusive writer is a witch, why not play up to this image of sorcery? Confined to the house for much of the film, the claustrophobic pressure, the weight of “what are you writing next?” weighs heavily on Shirley, and us. Not there to make house and toe the gender line by any means, something far more sinister prevents Shirley leaving these four walls. Rose, who fulfils the ‘housewife’ role by cooking and cleaning, soon tires of these shackles, and becomes the go-between for Shirley and the outside world, seeking clues to the disappearance of a young woman from campus – the seeds of Shirley’s next novel.
Though initially petrified of her curt, abrasive manner, Rose’s growing appreciation, and affection, for Shirley’s acerbic wit and middle finger to the niceties of society engender a change in the young woman as well. Concerned more by lectures and affairs than their wives, the two husbands – Stuhlbarg’s early twinkling charm proving to be little more than a smoke screen, and Lerman rather a non-character – they underestimate these women at their peril. And though the slow, blurry-edged stupor of Shirley will not be to everyone’s tastes, it cannot be denied that it examines its subject, and a rather tired genre, with feverish, dreamlike fluidity rather than rigid biography. That, and Moss’ enthralling lead performance, are Shirley’s chief accomplishments.
The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63