Shirley is not Jesting in this Biopic

10 Jun

By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)

Available on VOD
Spoiler Alert

Literary enthusiasts are encouraged to seek out Josephine Decker’s cinematic look into the mirror darkly of Shirley Jackson’s life. This mystery novelist is best known for her horror fiction, namely The Haunting of Hill House. In an amusing twist, this movie is an adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell‘s novel which examines the life of this author. To have two degrees of separation in this examination of Jackson’s life is reality bending.

In the biopic simply titled Shirley, everything we learn is through the eyes of a fictional couple who stayed with her. Newlyweds Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young) witness the turnabout of a happy 50s Americana. They are the perfect foil when comparing them to Jackson and Hyman. By their invitation, they moved in with the author and professor only to witness a teardown of life. As young and glossimer eyed as they are, Fred and Rose want to stay together.

However, Shirley’s on the edge. Those noises that she hears are her own fears, desperation and schizophrenia manifesting. Over the years, it’s taken on odd twists and turns, and somehow Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) puts up with it. His infamous cheating ways is something the wife is aware of, but in how she retaliates–it’s almost evil.

Elisabeth Moss’ performance deserves high praise. To see her manifest that persona Jackson is famous for is not easy.

I liken the plot to something akin to E.A. Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher. Instead of a story of a brother hiding his sister in those shuddered rooms, this movie shows how Stanley manipulates his wife, seemingly doing what’s best but ultimately adding to the mania which keeps Shirley going.

Perhaps in what gives this film a sense of dread is in the exposition. Jackson can’t stand her husband. She wants liberation and Rose is like a beacon of hope. This desperation is a common motif in her stories. The way this film unsettles instead of simply concludes makes the work a classic. When reading Jackson’s printed works is not enough, watching this film is certainly recommended.

4 Stars out of 5

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