SHIRLEY is the most remarkable film I have seen all year - as stylish, slippery and dangerous as the writer whose fictionalised inner life it portrays. It's filled with riotous rebellious performances and deep empathy for smart women who just won't lie down.
The centre of the film is a phenomenal performance from Elisabeth Moss (THE HANDMAID'S TALE) as the notorious, brilliant author Shirley Jackson (The Lottery, The Haunting At Hill House). When we meet her, Shirley is already an infamous author of dangerously dark works, earning far more than her husband, Professor Stanley Hyman. But she's also undone by depression and writer's block - visibly dishevelled, scabrous and scared to leave the house. Meanwhile her husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) is one of those aggressively extrovert characters who might seem charming at first, but is both supportive of his wife's brilliance but also capable of nasty jealousy-inflected put-downs. He also consciously uses his buffoonish behaviour to get way too close and handsy with other women. But the brilliance of this film is to show how the couple really does love each other and respect each other. Shirley knows Stanley cheats, and even though she hates it, she'll protect him from others exploiting that fact. And most importantly of all for a couple who live by their words, it is HIS opinion of her writing that she respects most of all. To that end, the relationship reminded me of Leonard and Virginia Woolf as much as of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
The fatal mistake of young Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) is to think that Shirley really does hate her husband and that she can drive a wedge between them. Poor Rose doesn't realise that while Shirley might be fascinated by her youth, and courage in sticking around despite the barbs, at some point she will force "the children" out because she has what she needs for her book. But then again, Rose also gets something out of the relationship. When we meet her, she is a beautifully put together young wife of a young assistant professor (Logan Lerman) moving in temporarily with Jackson and Hyman while they find a place to stay. Hyman begs them to stay longer rent-free and help look after his sick wife. Rose is pregnant and has dropped out of university and Shirley mocks her for it. But as Rose wins Shirley's trust and they both start investigating the disappearance of a young college girl called Paula, we see the three ladies merge into one. Shirley starts to become more put together - her hair less wild - and she starts to write again. She also imagines Rose as the disappeared Paula. And Rose becomes ragged, weighed down by pregnancy, heat, her husband's indifference and then infidelity. But she also knows more about herself and her husband and has found an inner strength and her own barbed tongue! More profoundly, we realise that all three women are in the same position. All three have expectations of what they will be, how they will look, what barriers society will place on where and how they can be smart. They are asked to live circumscribed lives, and is it surprising that this drives them mad?
The central performances are all stunning here, not least from Odessa Young as Rose who holds her own against Moss and Stuhlbarg. But let's spend some time on how phenomenal Josephine Decker's direction is. It's slippery and ambitious and deeply empathetic. The camera is kinetic and intimate and seems to get under the skin of the characters. For a film that's basically about four people taking around a dinner table in a single house, it never felt claustrophobic or static, unless it very deliberately wanted to be. And kudos to the production designer too, for making a house that heaves and pens in and can feel sinister and prison-like. I loved everything about how imaginative this film was, and how the real and imagined were allowed to intertwine. Finally, kudos to the costume designer Amela Baksic who so brilliantly uses dress and hairstyle to convey the expectations society had of women at this time, and to visually delineate each woman's state of mind as it evolves through the film.
SHIRLEY is rated R and has a running time of 107 minutes. It played Sundance, Berlin and London 2020. It opened in the US this summer, and will open in the UK on October 30th.