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Review: Shirley (2020)

Shirley (2020)

Directed by: Josephine Decker

Premise: Writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her academic husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) welcome a Ph.D. candidate and his wife (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young) into their home. Jackson’s erratic behavior and her husband’s twofaced manner threaten to drive the couple apart.

What Works: Shirley is simultaneously a tale about domestic relationships and the creative process. Despite including a famous writer as one of the principal characters and using her name in the title, Shirley is really about Rose, played by Odessa Young. She is the wife of a doctoral candidate and Rose has given up pursuing her own education to follow her husband’s ambitions. Rose’s growing discontentment with her marriage and her living situation is spurred by the actions of Shirley Jackson and her husband Stanley, played by Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg. Jackson suffers severe bouts of depression and lashes out at anyone in her path while Stanley alternates sexual harassment with arrogant derision for anyone he regards as beneath him. Together they are a toxic couple and Rose and Fred’s relationship is gradually poisoned by them. However, there is a bit more to it than that and Shirley ends on an understated but stinging final scene that recalibrates our understanding of everything we’ve just seen. The film has some great performances. The flashiest role is Elisabeth Moss in the title role. Moss specializes in playing damaged and unhinged characters and Shirley features Moss in rare form. Moss isn’t as manic as she was in Her Smell or The Invisible Man; her performance is focused and incisive while also possessing intelligence and an unpredictable quality that makes Moss fascinating to watch. Moss makes a lot of noise but Odessa Young should not be overlooked. Rose juggles multiple demands including housework, childcare, and marriage but comes to realize that she is being taken for granted and Young finds ways to externalize the interior life of her character. Also notable is Michael Stuhlbarg as Jackson’s professorial husband. He’s an awful character and Stuhlbarg plays his awfulness without apology and he delivers on the film’s witty dialogue. Shirley is made with great energy. The film uses unusual angles and the action is staged in ways that put our focus exactly where it should be to pick up on the subtext of the scenes. Shirley also has an unusual music score by Tamar-kali. The score sounds like it might be the music for an adaptation of one of Shirley Jackson’s horror stories and it adds an uncanny quality to the movie.

What Doesn’t: Shirley is highly fictionalized. There’s a long tradition of speculative fiction in which real life figures are placed in fabricated tales. This film is as good as any other example but it should not be taken as history. The one notable flaw of Shirley is the way it deals with Rose and Fred’s baby. When the couple moves in with Jackson and her husband, Rose is with child but the story skips from her being pregnant to Rose caring for the infant. It’s a jarring leap that misses the trauma of childbirth. The baby is also kept from Jackson and her husband. We never see the older couple react to the presence of the baby; it’s almost as if they don’t share the same house.

DVD extras: Currently available on streaming services.

Bottom Line: Shirley is a potent mix of thoughtful character study and an intense domestic drama. The film possesses a tumultuous energy and fierce intelligence while showcasing some terrific performances.

Episode: #804 (June 14, 2020)