Dark, psychological drama
- Shirley review by PD
This one starts really well, with Rose Nemser (Odessa Young), reading Shirley Jackson's great story, 'The Lottery' on a train, before, strangely aroused by it, dragging her husband, Fred (Logan Lerman), into the lavatory for sex. The two of them, as it happens, are on their way to Bennington, Vt., where Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) lives with her husband, the literary critic and campus lech Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). It’s supposed to be a temporary arrangement, but the young couple, like characters in a dark fairy tale, find themselves trapped in a spooky, ivy-covered house full of both menace and enchantment, and we, like them, are taken on a journey of psychological horror and erotic implication.
Adapted by Sarah Gubbins from Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel, it's not (thankfully) a 'biopic'. Decker and Moss instead approach Jackson as if she were a character in her own fiction, which is to say as an object of pity, terror, fascination and awe rather than straightforward sympathy. As she works feverishly on her next novel, she casts a spell on Rose, bedeviling her waking hours with tantrums and haunting her dreams. “I’m a witch,” Shirley proclaims, and it doesn’t seem like metaphor or hyperbole. She guesses the secret of Rose’s pregnancy by looking at her face. Rose, trembling between fear and lust, becomes Shirley’s nursemaid and her muse, her secret sharer and her prey.
Decker and the cinematographer, Sturla Brandth Grovlen, blur the boundaries of realism, interweaving domestic drama with scenes of fantasy, so that by the end we are not sure whose hallucination, or what kind of experience, we are witnessing, and at times the academic power games Shirley and Stanley play with Rose and Fred evoke Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” The film is also successful with its suggestion of the link between creativity and mental disorder: Shirley is a demonic genius, her brilliance hard to separate from her instability and eccentricity.
One notable liberty that “Shirley” takes with the biographical record is to make Jackson and Hyman childless. In real life, they raised four children, and some of Jackson’s most popular writing consisted of articles and stories about parenthood and everyday domesticity. In removing this thread, and making the unliterary, uneducated Rose (who dropped out of college to marry Fred) an emblem of fertility, the filmmakers impose a stark separation of roles on Jackson that she herself defied, and this seriously undermines the character's complexity.
The ending is all a bit tired and feeble after all the build up, but we are left with more than a suggestion that both Rose and Shirley are victims of a hypocritical, repressive, male-dominated world, though the actual men in their lives are weak, preening mediocrities, whilst the libidinal current that runs between the women, is convincing. Hopefully a lot more to come from a talented director.
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