Director – Josephine Decker – 2020 – US – Cert. 15 – 107m
Notorious author Shirley Jackson and her professor husband are seen through the eyes of a young couple invited to stay in their house – in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday, October 30th
The real life Shirley Jackson was an author who wrote fiction. She’s known to cinemagoers for the book The Haunting Of Hill House (1959) that was filmed twice for the movies as The Haunting, once brilliantly (Robert Wise, 1963) and once killed dead by an overabundance of gratuitous special effects (Jan de Bont, 1999) and more recently was turned into a Netflix TV series (Mike Flanagan, 2018). That book may not be mentioned here, but the piece of her writing that does get a mention is The Lottery, her notorious short story which appeared in 1948 in The New Yorker Magazine, where she published much of her fiction.
This new film adapts Susan Scarf Merrell’s comparatively recent, fictional book Shirley: A Novel (2016) in which she examines Shirley Jackson and her academic professor husband Stanley Edgar Hyman through the eyes of a young, pregnant woman who moves into their household along with her husband who is hoping to secure an assistant literature professor’s post at the local college in Bennington, Vermont under Stanley.
In addition to his professorship, Stanley also published as a critic of both literature and jazz. He can be seen playing records of the latter on his turntable at various points in the the film. He talked his wife into an open relationship to allow himself the freedom to fool around with a number of his students while at the same time controlling the household finances, even though her income from writing far surpassed all the money he made from his various endeavours combined.
The film is told from the point of view of the young pregnant wife Rose (Odessa Young), young,in love and engaging in copious amounts of sex with earnest husband Fred (Logan Lerman) at every opportunity, for instance on a train the very first time we see them. These two wide-eyed, seeming innocents contrast heavily with the jaded Shirley (Elizabeth Moss) and Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), the former living in a slip and never leaving the house, the latter lording it over both members of the young couple separately. Fred comes under the influence of Stanley and this inevitably takes its toll.
Rose, like Shirley, rarely leaves the house and it’s these two characters and that space in which the film is interested. We see little outside the house apart from, on the one hand, young women draped seductively over trees, which disposition may well relate to the Shakespearian Society the men are wont to attend on campus of an evening, and on the other, locations in the woods and elsewhere outside relating to a female suicide case about which Shirley is writing a novel.
Although there are bouts of lesbian activity between Shirley and Rose, their relationship as unequals is what drives the piece – innocence and corruption, master and servant, extraordinary and ordinary, talent and its singular lack. Director Josephine Decker deftly plays with fact, fiction and imagination, often shifting between them – and it’s not always clear whether something is taking place in reality or simply in Shirley’s imagination, not to mention what ia based on historical fact and what is invented by the author or the screenwriter Sarah Gubbins. This is crystallised by a sequence towards the end where Rose stands near the edge of a sheer drop near the woods, Shirley moves toward her and suddenly Rose has vanished. But what has happened? Nothing at all, perhaps, outside Shirley’s head? The sequence, like so much in this compelling film, is open to contradictory interpretation.
Although the tale is told from Rose’s point of view, as the title suggests Shirley is the centre of interest and Elisabeth Moss has a field day portraying her, covering as she does a broad gamut of emotional states. Stuhlbarg convinces as her abusive partner while Young and Lerman are perfectly cast as the wide-eyed young couple. Young is additionally cast as Paula, the murdered girl and the subject of Shirley’s current research for her novel in progress. There’s also a strong supporting cast, but it’s primarily Moss who makes an impact, and her extraordinary, mercurial performance is what you’ll remember afterwards.
Shirley is out in cinemas in the UK and on Curzon Home Cinema on Friday, October 30th.