‘Shirley’ review: Elisabeth Moss shines as a reclusive author on the verge of mental collapse

Sex, desire and a lust for power form the basis of this literary psychodrama

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    Director Josephine Decker’s follow-up to indie drama Madeline’s Madeline focuses on a year in the life of Shirley Jackson – the notorious recluse author of The Haunting of Hill House who has only recently been recognised as a significant writer in US history. It’s 1964, and Shirley lives with her academic husband Stanley (a delightfully twisted Michael Stulhbarg). Their relationship is a fascinating cocktail of desire, loathing and interdependence. She needs him to validate her work – and his purpose lies within that validation. One day, their lives are changed when Stanley’s new teaching assistant and his wife – Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young) – move into their home. Rose is enthralled with Shirley’s works. Overcome with ecstasy after reading one of her stories, she and Fred have passionate sex on a train.

    Shirley is less impressed with Rose. At their first meal together, she takes great satisfaction from humiliating her new housemate in front of everyone. Her character, phenomenally realised by Moss, is hugely complex. Interestingly, she manages to dominate everyone around her, while seeming like she’s constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

    Over the year-or-so that the four live together, they fall in and out of each other’s favour. Rose finds herself distanced from Fred, who makes nighttime visits to the “Shakespeare Society”, leaving his partner in the company of Shirley. As a result, she soon becomes Shirley’s muse. Fred, on the other hand, is desperate to earn Stanley’s admiration. He demands that the professor read his dissertation, but is left crestfallen by his vicious criticism. It’s in these twisting character relationships that Shirley revels, turning into a delightfully wicked mix of provocation, sensuality, and verbal sparring.

    Shirley
    Elisabeth Moss plays the titular author in ‘Shirley’. Credit: Neon

    The film is interspersed with voice-overs of Jackson reading from her new novel, which combines eerily with the actual plot of the film. The real life subject she is writing about is a young girl who walked into the woods and disappeared, apparently murdered. In Shirley’s fantasies she takes the appearance of Rose – and thanks to her own neurosis, the writer eventually comes to question if what she knows about the fate of the girl is true at all. These dreamlike sequences add another layer to the film, making for an even more captivating watch.

    Elsewhere, Decker makes use of the senses – particularly touch – to make each scene feel even more personal. At one point, Stanley feeds an olive into Shirley’s mouth, brushing her lips with his thumb. Later, he passionately kisses Rose, holding her dangerously close to his hips. Stanley’s physicality helps turn Shirley into an incredibly sensual, unhinged drama, but you can’t help wishing that Decker would lean even more into her characters’ sexuality. When Shirley spends time examining the power of sex and desire, it is most compelling. In the (few) moments when it sits back, deciding not to push the viewer, this stirring literary psychodrama will likely lose attention.

    Details

    • Director: Josephine Decker
    • Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Logan Lerman, Michael Stuhlbarg
    • Release date: June 5 (Digital)
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