Movie Review: Shirley

Shirley is a fictionalized account of a year in which a young couple, Fred and Rose, stay at the home of Professor Stanley Hyman and writer Shirley Jackson. Rose is suddenly relegated to becoming a housekeeper and minder of Shirley who never leaves the house and has bouts of depression. The two eventually form a bond as Fred and Rose's relationship becomes strained and Shirley becomes more invested in the story she's writing based on a woman that went missing from the college campus where Stanley and Fred teach. It stars Elizabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman, Orlagh Cassidy, and Michael Stuhlbarg. It is directed by Josephine Decker and written by Sarah Gubbins. The film is streaming exclusively for Hulu subscribers, but you can also rent it on VOD platforms.


As a film, Shirley takes on that unease and discomfort of a Shirley Jackson story. You're taken into a world of polite mundanity that's only covered by a thin sheet to the greater menace below. The film seethes in that world with Shirley casually mentioning she's a witch and instead of it being a witty, self-deprecating jab thrown out, it is revealed as a truth. She reads tarot and practices magic. She even guesses at Rose's pregnancy when first meeting her. Knowing this helps punctuate the greatest spell of all in the psychosexual hold Shirley has on Rose.


Director Josephine Decker and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen have built some extraordinarily gorgeous scenes around Shirley's writing process. As Shirley manipulates Rose, she thinks on Paula, her character, and the different motivations for her disappearance. These scenes of Paula go from blurred faces and soft edges, to sharp focus and the face of Rose taking the place of Paula's as the fantasies bleed into Shirley's reality, walking around her, influencing her, living through her. As Shirley pushes Rose away, her thoughts of Paula become less frequent and the dreamy/nightmare of it drifts away.


I also love the metaphor of Stanley. He exemplifies this monolith, this man who makes the rules. Stanley forces himself into situations and uses his power to take so much. He controls and manipulates with charm and unimpeachable authority in that way that's so familiar and so infuriating. Yet, as much as he tries to get Shirley to bend to his will, he can never break her. He can never force her into his game. She sees the smallness of Stanley, the holes in his facade and she knows how to poke her finger right through him.


This film's leads are all stunning and I could watch Michael Stuhlbarg as an erudite professor in just about anything, but two performances are just mesmerizing. The first is Odessa Young who plays Rose. Rose's naiveté about the ways of teachers and the way people see her is so present on Young's face and in her actions, but as she gets more and more tuned into her situation, Young's transformation is just as stark. Her final moments as Rose are so good I couldn't look away. Her scenes with Elizabeth Moss are stellar and their chemistry is palpable.


Yes, Elizabeth Moss has done it again. She embodies the sarcasm, wit, and intelligence of Shirley with as much verve as she tackles the vulnerability, loneliness and fear of Shirley. She chews the scenery with her scene partners and commands the screen in every capacity. She takes her time with scenes, she feels out the power and makes us as uncomfortable as her character feels. It's the type of lived in performance that allows one to completely divest from the world outside the screen and just sink in to a glass of scotch with her.


I loved Shirley. I think it's an incredibly inventive, skin crawling, heart breaking and beautiful film. I know it won't be for everyone, it's a little inaccessible in some ways, but I think if you give it a shot, you will be immersed into a hybrid film that has genre trappings and psychological games mixed into its plot in the most delicious ways.

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