“A fictional biography” is a phrase that usually doesn’t work when it comes to films. Of course, when telling the story of a real person or event, some dramatic license is necessary and sometimes warranted. The new film, “Shirley,” tells the story of horror writer Shirley Jackson that features events that never took place. And that is just fine.
Jackson is best known for her 1960 horror novel, “The Haunting of Hill House.” The book was a critical and commercial success and was made into the 1963 classic ghost tale, “The Haunting” by Robert Wise and, more recently, the well-received Netflix miniseries adaptation directed by Mike Flanagan.
The author died young (at only forty-eight) due to a heart condition and spent her final years as a recluse, all but refusing to discuss her work in public forums, nor would she give interviews. Her final days are a mystery to all but her widower, Stanley Hyman, which is why the filmmakers’ approach to her story works so well.
The film finds Shirley Jackson, played by Elizabeth Moss, already a loner and suffering through her sickness. She sleeps away most days while her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg, a treasure in any film) teaches at a liberal arts college. One day he brings home his teaching assistant Fred (Logan Lerman, whose unconvincing performance is the film’s only weak point) and his wife Rose. The couple ends up staying at the house for longer than anyone wants.
Shirley is cold to them both and all but ignores Rose. Odessa Young plays Rose with a depth and stunning sexual frustration that shows she has all the makings of a great actress. Young makes something so relatable and ultimately heartbreaking out of her performance.
Stanley becomes much too flirty and overbearing to both Fred and Rose while Shirley never warms up to them. At first antagonistic, the relationship between Shirley and Rose eventually turns to an attraction that neither woman can fully grasp. Although they act on it sexually and seem to trust one another with certain secrets, there is still something dangerous and distrustful about their relationship.
As the layers are peeled back with each revelatory scene, we see Stanley’s true colors. While he first praises Fred and overly-compliments Rose to the point of sexual harassment, when his genius and stature is threatened his compliments turn vicious and biting. When Fred asks him if he read his dissertation, Stanley reacts viciously and insults not only the work but Fred’s abilities as a writer.
The brilliance of the moment is in Stuhlbarg’s acting strategy. In his diction, his movement, and with every word we see that Stanley is floored by how good Fred’s work is. He is not strong enough to allow someone as smart as he is to receive his kudos, so he attacks. Stanley is revealed to be a fragile soul having to care for a wife that is even more unstable.
Shirley Jackson sits quiet, smoking and judging behind her tired and angry eyes. The acidic aura burns off her and infects the household. When she comes to be attracted to Rose, Shirley awakens the simmering rebellion inside her. The fifties was an era that expected women to stand by their men while not expressing their own voice. Shirley’s own rebelliousness can be found in her writing and once she sees the sexual and social repression inside Rose it becomes a challenge to free it and open her mind and body to the pleasures of being a strong woman.
Elizabeth Moss continues on her journey toward establishing herself as one of the most compelling actresses of the era. To watch Moss at work in any film is exciting and her work in “Shirley” could, should, bring her an Oscar nomination.
In this film, Shirley Jackson is cerebral. What becomes a blur of the real and surreal is written on her face and sometimes we aren’t sure if we can trust what is happening. We are taken aback when we see her smile for the first time and are pleased to see her find a connection to Rose even when we know it is wrong and will end badly. If the eyes are truly the window to the soul, Jackson’s humanity is dark and conflicted with only the smallest light of the ability to care anymore.
Along with their lead actress, screenwriter Sara Gubbins and director Josephine Decker have seized the essence of Shirley Jackson through fictionalizing the story. They took great risk in the crafting of this film and in using an almost abstract approach. And it works, beautifully.
The screenplay (based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel) takes its cue from Jackson’s 1951 novel “Hangsaman” (which Jackson is writing during this film) where a woman enrolled at a liberal arts college slides into madness. She bases her book on a missing college student and even imagines Rose in the role.
In this film, Jackson is basically a prisoner of her own making and is beginning to see sanity in the rearview mirror. She is an unsettling person to be around and her distaste for the world around her infects everyone who comes into her path and falls victim to her vitriol.
A passing comparison to Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” in which the older and bitter couple obsessively berate the younger couple, seems appropriate. As in Albee’s play, there is something violent not only in the fierceness of Shirley’s verbal attacks but in Rose’s sexuality. In the few brief moments Fred allows sex to happen, it is always rough and fast and Rose is always the instigator and the aggressor.
This film is its own entity all the same. Director Baker balances the real and surreal ways that Shirley Jackson perceives the world, without overdoing it. Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen lensed the dust-filled house where Shirley and Stanley live in a sunny hue, as he does the rest of the film. We know the darkness is in Jackson’s mind and persona. To go with more fragmented and occasionally sunnier visual tones to reflect Shirley’s mental state was the smart move.
“Shirley” is one of the most exciting films of 2020 and Elizabeth Moss’s deeply-felt turn the performance of a career.