SHIRLEY – Review
At this time of quarantine, self-isolation, and (in several major urban areas) imposed curfew, who’s ready for a film about a person dealing agoraphobia? Yes, that’s right. A person who can physically leave the house , but mentally cannot. But there’s much more to this film than that. It’s a fictional tale set during the life of a celebrated and still studied actual author. So, this isn’t a standard biography, rather an imagined incident occurring during a real career. Much as with J.D. Salinger who was the subject of a standard bio in 2017, REBEL IN THE RYE, and a supporting player in the fictional COMING THROUGH THE RYE two years previous. There’s a couple of things that make this “what if” story unique. The first would be the fact that the author in question is a woman (a rarity in cinematic portrayals of the profession). And second, she was best remembered for the genre known as horror (both psychological and supernatural), though a couple of centuries after Mary Shelly. In between Poe and King there was Jackson, the woman known as SHIRLEY.
It all begins aboard a passenger train in the early 1950s, as restless anxious recent bride Rose (Odessa Young) is immersed in the world of the recently published short story, “The Lottery”. The tale has added impact by the fact that she and her hubby, aspiring literature teacher Fred (Logan Lerman) will meet the author later that day. A trip to the restroom (far from the “mile high club”) alleviates some boredom and tension. As dusk settles over rural Vermont, the young couple arrives at the home of Fred’s mentor/supervisor, Bennington College’s Professor of Music and Folklore Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) where a big party is in full swing. Sitting inside the two-story manor house is his irritated chain-smoking spouse, celebrated writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss). The plan is for the young couple to stay with the Hymans until they can find a suitable rental property, but Stanley has other plans. Since they’ve just lost a housekeeper, perhaps the new arrivals can stay rent-free, until new house help can be hired, with Rose doing the cooking and cleaning in between her classes and while Fred tackles his new job. The first private home dinner doesn’t go well as Shirley guesses that Rose is with child (she’s right) and hurls verbal barbs at her about their “shotgun wedding”. Rose is mortified, but Stanley convinces them to ignore his wife’s venom. The young couple stay put. As the days pass, and Fred spends more time with Stanley on campus, the tensions between the two women dissolve. They even become partners as Shirley sends out Rose (the author will not leave her home) to collect research information about a local young woman from the college who has been missing for many weeks. Shirley decides that this will be the basis of her new work, a full novel. But as she begins the story, her new friendship with Rose begins to blossom into something compelling and eventually passionate. How can their relationship continue in the repressed ’50s in New England?
When last we saw Ms. Moss she was carrying the recent “re-imagining” of the H.G. Welles classic THE INVISIBLE MAN just a few months ago (right when we could view it in a movie theatre…remember those). She returns here as a very different type of heroine whose complexity just emphasizes Moss’s remarkable acting gifts. During the opening sequences her take on Jackson is that of a true monster, one just as frightening as those that haunted Hill House. She sneers at the party guests from her “throne” couch alternating between gulps of booze and drags on an ever-present cigarette. It appears as though she’s saving up her strength to strike, which she does at the next night’s supper, with Rose her stunned prey. Moss takes a huge creative risk in making her so venal, knowing that she must win us back, which she does “in spades”. We see that Jackson is fighting several mental health challenges, though she will tolerate no pity. Her creativity fuels her as the big town mystery imbues her with the strength to pound on the manual typewriter, making it sound like a “Tommy-gun” (you’d think sparks would be flying from that Underwood). Some time later Moss shows us Jackson’s emotional vulnerability as her new friend seems to unearth long-buried passions. This performance, coupled with her superb TV roles, cements her reputation as one of today’s most versatile and compelling actresses.
Luckily, another superb actor is on board as her spouse/adversary. Stuhlbarg is once again playing an academic, but it’s a twisted turn on his nurturing art professor in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME. Hyman is a strutting peacock, in class and at home. seeking to always be the center of attention. He feeds on it and almost drools at the prospect of “feeding” off the young couple. While shamelessly flirting with Rose, he cultivates admiration from Fred, well until he feels threatened by the ‘upstart”, and slams him back to earth with a scathing critique. But they still don’t see his full cruelty as he batters his spouse with passive-aggressive verbal slaps. He tells her to get out of bed, but says she’s “biting off too much” with plans for a novel. Stuhlbarg makes him a truly charming cad. Particularly as he clumsily pursues Young who brings a wide-eyed wounded feel to the confused Rose. She’s being trained and groomed to be the perfect faculty “wifey’ since Jackson is too much of a “pill”. But Rose’s new friendship with Rose literally awakens her to injustices in this new “role” for her. Young conveys this with a change in body language, standing straight as she goes toe-to-toe with anyone hoping that she’ll just “sit quietly”. Lerman as Fred is visibly “gobsmacked” by her refusal to be a placid part of his life plan. Though he seems more hurt by his father figure Hyman “gut-punching’ him with an academic “wake up call”. He’s a big part of this film’s formidable acting quartet.
Director Josepher Decker brings a languid dream-like quality to this quirky character study. What starts as a real-life riff on WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLF ( the troubled older couple drawing in the fresh-faced younger two) twists into an awakening fable and an unconventional love story. The symbolism often feels a bit heavy in the screenplay by Sarah Gubbins based on the book by Susan Scarf. As Rose strides across campus, she passes a bevy of nubile co-eds wrapping around the limbs of an old tree recalling Circe and her sirens luring sailors to the rocks, destroying ships (or in this case, marriages). And the whole missing student mystery too often echoes Rose’s off-kilter journey to enlightenment. Plus there’s a frequent confusion with the abundant dream montages, making us wonder if we’re in the head of Jackson or Rose (or both). But the locale of a sleepy college town (scandals aplenty) is expertly recreated in all its post-war ivy league glory (those proto-hippies, the beatniks, seem to be just lurking around the next corner). Despite the leisurely pacing, the bravado compelling performances of the cast, led by exceptional Moss, makes SHIRLEY an engaging look at a still influential literary icon.
2.5 Out of 4
SHIRLEY opens on selects screens and is available as a Video On Demand on most cable and satellite systems, along with many media platforms. SHIRLEY is also now streaming on the Hulu app.