Shirley (2020)

Director: Josephine Decker
Writer: Sarah Gubbins
Based on: Susan Scarf Merrell‘s novel
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman
Part of: Viennale
Seen on: 23.10.2020

Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young) were recently married and are excited to embark on a new step in their life: Fred got a dissertation spot with Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Rose could enrol at his university, too. Rose is also excited to meet Hyman’s wife, the famous writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss). But things come very different than expected. Shirley is abrasive and the few days that Fred and Rose were invited to stay at their home until they get settled in their own turn longer and longer, with Rose picking up more and more of the domestic duties. Her presence seems to help Shirley focus on her work at least, and the two women become closer.

Shirley is a film made of ambivalences – ambivalent characters make very ambivalent choices in a blend of fact and fiction that is also pretty ambivalent. That makes it rather challenging, but I thought it was more than worth it.

The film poster showing Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) sitting at a desk in the middle of the woods.

The film leaves a lot of room for interpretation of what, actually, is happening here. But what I personally found entirely unquestioned is the film’s feminist core. There is no getting around that, no matter what reading of the film, its characters or the plot you see. The way Rose is pushed away from her own studies to become the caretaker of everyone, the way both Rose and Shirley connect with Paula’s story – a missing student that inspires Shirley to write Hangsaman, at least in the film here – or rather their interpretation of it that instills in it a yearning for freedom, and the way Rose walks away in the end – they all spoke to me of a deeply rooted feminist sensibility that I greatly appreciated.

As I appreciated the overall ambiguity and complexity, especially in the characters: are Shirley and Stanley callously using Rose and Fred? Are Shirley and Rose bonding honestly over the way they are both trapped in their lives? Do Shirley and Stanley love each other? Do they hate each other? I suspect the answer to all of these questions is yes. But we could talk at length about it.

Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) and Rose (Odessa Young) in the forest. Shirley is grabbing Rose's chin.

This can only work with a good eye for the characters that Decker obviously brings to the table, and with great performances. Moss is the big draw in this film – she dominates every scene she appears in. Young’s role is less flashy, but she is equally good and able to hold her own next to Moss’ force of nature. Stuhlbarg and Lerman’s characters take back seats, but they round things off nicely.

From what I gather, there is a lot of the film that is entirely fictional – Fred and Rose never existed, for example, but Shirley and Stanley had children at the time. But I don’t think factual accuracy is necessary the goal for a biopic. What Decker definitely manages is to give us a vivid picture of a complicated woman, making me more curious about Jackson. I’ve been meaning to read something by Jackson for a while. The Haunting of Hill House has been on my “read soon” pile for quite a while. After seeing this film, I will definitely get to it much faster.

More importantly, though, Shirley is a fantastic film that would be worth watching no matter who the persons portrayed are.

Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young) on their way to Professor Hyman's home.

Summarizing: Excellent.

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