"Shirley is a deeply feminine film, exploring themes of motherhood, oppression, witchcraft, defiance, sacrifice, sisterhood and sensuality."
In her previous feature, Madeline’s Madeline (2018), director Josephine Decker took a stark look at the price of art above all else, and the relationship between mental health and creativity. She continues this exploration in her new film, Shirley, set around Shirley Jackson’s tumultuous build-up to her launch onto the global horror literature scene.
The pretentiousness and pettiness of intellectuals, and their utter focus on ‘the work’ as the priority over, say, kindness or human connection, drives much of the drama in Decker’s film. Jackson’s writing is treated as this precious, fragile thing, and the wellbeing of herself and those within her orbit is framed almost entirely around her ability to put pen to paper.
The ever-brilliant Elisabeth Moss beautifully conveys the pendulum swings of Jackson’s mental state, unable to get out of bed until coaxed and threatened, and then exploding with violent outbursts when having one of her “bouts”. The quieter moments - Jackson’s sometimes stilted speech or a struggle to venture beyond the front doorstep - are sensitive and convincing, and when her “dark thoughts” spill over she can be mischievous, provocative and cruel.
"The camera has us spying through cracks and around corners, accompanied by a score that’s both urgent and gothic."
Moss’ recent performances in Us (2019) and The Invisible Man (2020) lend a certain context to her portrayal of one of America’s most successful horror writers. She’s a very physical actor, and she hunches and scowls and smirks her way into the embodiment of this fascinating woman.
The camera has us spying through cracks and around corners, accompanied by a score that’s both urgent and gothic. Among her horror and mystery novels, Jackson famously penned ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, and although this is certainly not a horror film, by imbuing Shirley with dreamy visuals, dark whispers and a claustrophobic sense of dread, Decker has given us a ghost story with no actual ghosts.
Much like Jackson’s mind, the household is in disarray, opening the opportunity for Odessa Young’s Rose to come in and impose order onto both. The chemistry between Moss and Young is strong; Shirley and Rose support each other and tease each other out, trusting and testing one another, and there are delightfully subtle moments as Rose begins to mirror Shirley’s body language and way of speaking. Following marvelous turns in The Daughter (2015), Assassination Nation (2018) and A Million Little Pieces (2018), Young is again superb, giving an assured yet pliant performance as the new wife and then new mother plunged into tough but eye-opening circumstances.
Jackson’s writing is key to the film, and Rose plays a significant part in nurturing the process - inspiring, playing detective, and even standing in for the missing girl Paula in Shirley’s imaginings.
"The ever-brilliant Elisabeth Moss beautifully conveys the pendulum swings of Jackson’s mental state."
Shirley is a deeply feminine film, exploring themes of motherhood, oppression, witchcraft, defiance, sacrifice, sisterhood and sensuality. It’s also profoundly sexy, playing out against a hot and sultry backdrop, reminiscent of a Tennessee Williams play. As the women’s bond intensifies, it becomes all secret looks and snatched caresses, darkened bedrooms and silk slips.
The poor men - so comfortable in their positions of authority - do not come over favourably; Michael Stuhlbarg and Logan Lerman do admirable work as the arrogant, envious, sleazy, adulterous husbands to these far more interesting women.
Despite her potential to be a poison, it’s impossible not to sympathise with and root for Moss’ Shirley Jackson. If any aspect of the film didn’t work for me, it would be the segments of detective work and imagined flash-backs, which unnecessarily distract from the captivating intimacies of the central female relationship. But, as Shirley says of Rose at one point, it’s a film that stokes your appetite and leaves you feeling filled.