Shirley (2020)

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Josephine Decker gives us a rich and textured exploration of feminism and patriarchy, wrapped around a fictionalised account of real-life gothic horror writer Shirley Jackson.

I know nothing about Shirley Jackson. This film is based on a fictional novel inspired by Jackson and so is several degrees from being a biopic. What it does do is deftly weave elements of Jackson’s life with the plot of her early novel Hangsaman and the real case of a college student, Paula Jean Welden, who went missing from the college where Jackson’s husband worked. The result is a sumptuous story that exposes the oppression of patriarchy in the 40s and the labelling of wilfulness in women as madness.

Rose (Odessa Young) and her new husband Fred (Logan Lerman finally looking grown up) arrive at a Vermont college where Fred hopes to become a professor. They are taken in ‘for a few days’ by the charismatic Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a popular and garrulous professor who Fred idolises, and soon are press-ganged into staying on so that Rose can cook and clean for them and keep an eye on Stanley’s reclusive wife, author Shirley (Elizabeth Moss).

At first Rose and Shirley don’t get along. Shirley won’t leave the house and often her bed, is crotchety and secretive and derisive of Rose’s prim optimism. Stanley loudly decries her inability to write but is iron-fisted in his control of her and quietly vicious, undermining her work and her sanity. As a white man with authority, he can gaslight his wife with ease. Over time, though, the two women find a connection and a bond forms. It’s not without its problems – there are times when it feels like a destructive dependency – but there is warmth and solidarity that transforms them both. We can see them becoming each other, through dress and hair and implacability.

Interwoven through this is Hangsaman, the story that Shirley is writing about Paula Welden. Paula is also played by Odessa Young and so the boundary between reality and fiction becomes blurred. Sometimes it is easy to miss when Rose is actually Paula on screen; she is an alter-ego who is stronger and braver and perhaps pays a price for that. This is quite an important aspect of the narrative and it brings us to an ending that is perplexing. Rather than try and divine what is true in the ending, it feels more rewarding to think about the feelings it provokes.

Moss is a stand out as Shirley. She can hold the screen without a word and you can read novels in her expression. She is made to look much older than the 32 that Jackson would have been in 1948, a frumpy self-declared witch to Rose’s pretty youth. Young – who is Australian – holds her own and is a match for Moss. She undergoes the most transformation in the narrative and is believable as the innocent and the virago. Stuhlbarg, who was so likeable in Call Me By Your Name, makes Stanley a monster that you believe would have been liked by everyone.

Jackson suffered from a verbally and emotionally abusive mother growing up and learned to hate her looks and body shape. We can see this in Moss’s dowdy clothes and unkempt hair and knowing it makes the abuse by Stanley all the sadder. The tendency to label women mad when they don’t comply is often trivialised but, in reality, it meant that women were never safe. Shirley’s power was in her ability to earn money from her writing, something Stanley was never able to do, but in the world of this film, it seems a poor compromise.

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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