REEL Review – Shirley (2020)

Director: Josephine Decker | 1h 47mins | Biography, Drama, Thriller

Famed horror-writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) is just about to begin writing a new novel when her husband, Professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), invites a young couple stay with them. Shirley doesn’t particularly enjoy the company until the girl, Rose (Odessa Young), starts to inspire her.

Shirley is a deeply psychological ode to the works of it’s titular character, a film that blends it’s biopic foundation with layer of atmosphere and fear. It’s Based on Shirley: A Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell which keeps the reality of Shirley and her husband but puts them in a story of psychological examination, as well as the blurred lines between an author and her work. But the beauty of Shirley is that, in a sense, it’s freed by it’s fiction.

The reason for the couple’s stay is because Shirley’s husband Stanley and Rose’s husband Fred are academically linked by the University. Fred and Stanley spend everyday at their classes, leaving the wide open space of Shirley’s antique house shared by just Rose and Shirley. At first Rose fears Shirley, a difficult and cutthroat person with no filter when it comes to engaging in conversation. But eventually their relationship turns into one of intrigue and unsettling reliance.

In a strange way, Rose and Shirley connect so intrinsically because of their disconnect. Rose resents the ‘housewife’ label and can’t stand the thought of engaging in a horrifying social exchange with the shut-in writer, and Shirley deems herself to be too preoccupied for pleasantries, too good for them. But as Shirley becomes obsessed with the idea of writing her new novel on a known missing-persons case, she slowly sees the links in Rose and the character she is writing.

It’s complex all the way through, and Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg play it to perfection.

The girl she is writing is lost, scared and fragile. Something that both Rose and Shirley show from time to time, so when Shirley’s visions of her novel come to screen we see Odessa Young taking on the role of the missing girl too. It’s all about how the fiction links so well with the reality here, the mystery of her new novel coincides with Shirley’s psyche and in turn, Rose’s presence in the house. It’s filled with scenes of tension, both sexual and horrifying in which Rose and Shirley are unsure of the relationship they are building, and director Josephine Decker makes it in such a way that is so brilliant; keeping us guessing as to what could possible happen between the two of them.

A strong part of the film’s biopic side is the complexity of Shirley’s relationship with her husband. A smart, playful and often forceful man that is the only one who seems to match Shirley on an intellectual level. But there is so much spite and confusion in their relationship, are they happy? It’s extremely difficult to tell. Often they scream and shout, and even use Rose and Fred as pawns in their games just for the fun of it. It’s complex all the way through, and Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg play it to perfection.

Now in 2020 it’s safe to say Moss can pretty much tackle anything, she’s an actress with range and talent that a lot of people would die for, but arguably this is her best yet. Emotionally complex and reserve, Moss plays her as a woman with an abundance of emotion boiling up inside. We see this in one scene in particular, when Stanley playfully says “You might say you’re smitten.” To which Moss commandingly yet unconvincingly replies “I don’t smote.” There is layer after layer to her performance, and being surrounded by people that match her is even more impressive feat for the movie to have.

Occasionally it feels like scenes spends a little too much time lingering in one place in order to get their message across, but the truth is it’s continually performed to perfection and shot with such ferocious tension that it really doesn’t matter. Exciting, mad and genuinely thrilling, Shirley’s wonderful mix of real character and fiction keep it from being restrained by the biopic formula.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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