There were three reasons why Shirley was my most anticipated film of this year’s London Film Festival. Three women: director Josephine Decker, actor Elisabeth Moss, and the character she plays, author Shirley Jackson. And I wasn’t disappointed.
This is Decker’s fourth film. Her previous one, Madeline’s Madeline (2018), got good reviews in the US but flopped at the box office earning only $185,000. In the UK it had a very limited release and virtually zero advertising; at my cinema screening I was in an audience of two. Perhaps its experimental approach and odd narrative made it a tricky film to market; the trailer would leave you none the wiser either. But those who sought it out discovered a fascinating, bold and absolutely unique film with a distinctive visual style.
It clearly impressed the right people including Elizabeth Moss and Martin Scorsese, Shirley‘s producer and executive-producer respectively. I’m very glad they did as what emerged is very good indeed.
Shirley Jackson is perhaps best known for her classic horror novel ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, which was the source novel for Robert Wise’s excellent 1963 film The Haunting (another Martin Scorsese favourite) and more recently the very loose inspiration for the more dubious Netflix series. Her other novels include ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ and she also wrote around two hundred short stories of which ‘The Lottery‘ is still studied in American schools, and which appears at the start of this film.
A writer in the 1940s and 50s, she’s sometimes read as a feminist author even though she pre-dated the second-wave feminist movement of the sixties. But her own life was hardly empowering; feeling trapped in a small community with an overbearing husband, she descended into a reclusive life of very ill health, anxiety, alcohol and drugs, and would die at a relatively young 48.
Chiefly known as a horror writer, her female characters often try to escape a stifling, claustrophobic existence, sometimes rescued by false lover, sometimes seeking refuge in a large house, and usually ending up in a state of psychological abandon and despair, themes that are taken up by this film.
Although the title character is author Shirley Jackson, Shirley isn’t really a biopic, not quite. It’s the tale about a young couple, Rose and Fred Nemser, who come to Vermont to live with Jackson and her husband Stanley Hyman, a literature professor in the nearby Bennington College.
In real life, the Nemsers didn’t exist, but the depiction of Shirley and Stanley’s characters and relationship was accurate. Shirley is a jaded, bitter alcoholic and Stanley a self-absorbed adulterous letch, both are strange pillars in their small-town middle-class community, admired and reviled equally. Rose is infatuated by Shirley and the two form a close but damaging friendship.
It’s based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell. I thought the novel itself was average, some interesting ideas and characters but clumsily written and poorly structured, and a little too in awe of its title character (like Rose herself, perhaps). However, scriptwriter Sarah Gubbins found fertile ground by choosing to focus on some of the book’s stronger elements, tidying up some of the messier aspects, and reducing some of the novel’s less well-developed threads to ephemeral hints and suggestions.
Decker has crafted a fascinating and at times exhilarating film.
The restless almost hallucinatory framing and sound design create a claustrophobic and unsettling tone, and we become increasingly uncertain about what is real and what is in the characters heads.
It’s mostly set in Jackson’s large house and Decker makes full use of her location. The oppressive public areas of the house where the couple host their alcohol-fuelled literary soirees, the sanctuary of the cool bathroom, sharp arguments in the kitchen, and the forbidden intrigue of Jackson’s private study. The set design is expressive. But, like Shirley herself, although this is a mostly house-bound story the film’s inventive style means it never feels over-theatrical or false.
This style is supported by cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen who picks up Decker’s trademark visual style with verve. Grøvlen also worked in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round also showing at the 2020 London Film Festival. The music by Tamar-kali is similarly unsettling, a mixture of stark, dangerous piano bursts alternated with more vigorous chamber strings. The composer also worked on Dee Rees’s films Mudbound and the less successful Joan Didion adaptation The Last Thing He Wanted (bought by Netflix) and she also wrote music for this year’s The Assistant.
Decker does really interesting things with point-of-view. In Madeline’s Madeline, the film very strongly took the viewpoint of its single protagonist, with its experimental style blurring the identities of that character, an actor, and the character she played. However in Shirley while things are less showy they are no more clear-cut.
As in the novel, the film initially takes the point-of-view of Rose, so we initially see Shirley from an outsider’s perspective. However, gradually the PoV flips; sometimes the restless camera takes Rose’s viewpoint, sometimes Shirley, sometimes both. It somehow captures the mood, fears and energies of these women. There’s something of Bergman’s Persona here, playing with control and ownership of identity. At times Rose seems to want to become Shirley, and conversely Shirley seems intent on absorbing some Rose’s character into her fiction.
For in the film, Jackson is working on her 1951 novel ‘Hangsaman’, a manuscript she guardedly keeps to herself. That novel was based on the real-life disappearance of a young woman called Paula Weldon five years previously; Paula was enrolled in Bellingdon College, where Stanley teaches. In Jackson’s version, the main female character emerges into adulthood, is repulsed and fascinated by drunken parties, and later is lured by an impish, bohemian young man into dangerous situations – is this an echo of how Rose is drawn to Shirley?
Rose becomes merged with both the real and fictional versions of Paula (both are played by the same actress). Sometimes directly – in an important scene, despairing Rose wants to walk the mountain trailhead where Paula vanishes – and sometimes implicitly, wearing red in echo of the clothing Paula wore when she was last seen. Jackson’s novel is echoed in little touches. For example in Stanley’s class the students learn about the folk ballad The Demon Lover (aka The House Carpenter); it’s a fragmentary scene but the lyrics resonate, again it’s about a young woman drawn to her doom by a charismatic, alluring suitor. Becket weaves in these threads delicately, we barely notice them.
Elizabeth Moss is brilliant as Shirley, playing her as mocking and cruel, yet needy and fragile, it’s one of the best roles I’ve seen her in. She’s captivating and charismatic, even at her most repulsive, veering between vulnerability and caustic mocking. You can see why Rose is fascinated by her and allows herself to be manipulated.
Michael Stuhlbarg (The Shape of Water, Call Me By Your Name) is also great as Shirley’s preening and controlling academic husband Stanley. He plays him as an impish egocentric, oscillating between charm and boorishness, an eccentric womaniser who has affairs with his young, adoring students, partly to mock and goad his wife.
The pair make an enjoyably grotesque couple. The arguments and callous games are caustic, but yet their relationship is based on a deep dependency for one another. Two bohemian outsiders, larger than life in their sleepy college town.
The younger couple, played by Odessa Young and Logan Lerman, are more understated as a pair of innocents drawn into the lion’s den, as the older couple manipulate and toy with their jealousies and sexual desires. It’s a situation recalling Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where a young couple find themselves unwittingly used as fuel for a bitter marital battle.
Shirley is a harsh, mysterious, beguiling film. The story is slight, but this is more about the characters, relationships and thematic echoes than it is about strong narrative. Decker’s direction seems more restrained and less idiosyncratic than in Madeline’s Madeline, but it’s distinctive and imaginative, and is often suffocatingly unsettling. By weaving aspects of Shirley Jackson’s real life and echoes of her fiction, she gives us a richly layered film. And Elizabeth Moss’s pivotal performance is brilliantly captivating.