Shirley (2019) **** Bfi London Film Festival 2020

October 8th, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Josephine Decker; Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman; USA 2020, 107 min.

Making a name for herself with a stylish array of imagined dramas Josephine Decker moves into the arena of real life with this febrile portrait of horror writer Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) whose most popular novel ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ has been filmed on numerous occasions, the last being as a ten-episode long production on Netflix. 

Based on ‘Shirley: A Novel’ by Susan Scarf  the film takes place in 1964 in North Bennington, Vermont – which seems a strange a strange choice, since Scarf actually wrote her novel ‘Hangasman’, whose writing process is the central part of the feature, in 1951. The narrative centres on two couples, the middle-aged Shirley (Moss) and her English professor husband Stanley (Stuhlbarg), and their much younger house guests Rose (Young) who is pregnant with their first child, and her academic husband Fred (Lerman), who tries to get a tenure at Bennington College, being Stanley’s assistant. There are shades of Albee’s Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but, more importantly, Rose and Fred are invented characters. But in staying away from a strictly biographical narrative, Decker and her writer Sarah Gubbin enhance the richness of the storytelling – even though the ‘deletion’ of four kids, who would have been around in 1951, is another puzzling decision.

We meet Rose and Fred on the train on their way to Bennington, where they have rampant sex in the train’s bathroo after Rose has finished Jackson’s Kafkaesque novella ‘The Lottery” from 1949. What was planned as a short stay, turns into a much longer tenancy, when Fred literally pimps out his wife to look after the alcoholic and and agro phobic writer, with the philandering husband making unwanted advances. Soon Fred follows in Stanley’s footsteps, and sleeps with an undergraduate student leaving the women to look for intimacy among them selves.

A major topic is Jackson’s obsession with death, not uncommon for a writer of her genre. ‘Hangsaman’ is the story of a young student called Natalie, who becomes mentally unbalanced and takes her own life. She is renamed Paula in the feature and played by Young in a part-staging of the novel. But death is never far away – in one scene Shirley frightens Rose by pretending to eat a poisonous mushroom in the woods. And near the end there is a brilliant dream-sequence with Rose standing at the edge of the cliff with her baby.

Norwegian-born DoP Sturla Brandth Groven underlines the horror-film atmosphere with a great array of light movements: even though the feature is told more from Rose’s per perspective, the flurry, wandering light seems to make the house into a prison for Jackson. Her outings into the world are also fraught with disaster: she enjoys vindictively spoiling a new sofa with red wine because she dislikes the hostess of the academic gathering. Somehow, Shirley’s protests against the mediocre, male-dominated society rubs off on Rose: when Fred tells her his affair is over, and “soon everything will be back to normal”, she lets him know that this is not the case. 

Shirley is a very ambitious feature, even though a great deal takes place away from the camera, Moss and Young are mesmerising enough to keep the audience occupied. With Shirley Gubbins and Decker have created a valuable contribution to the feminist horror genre. AS



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