A fascinating artist – author Shirley Jackson – is the subject of the captivating dramatic film, Shirley. Adapted by Sarah Gubbins from the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell and directed by Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline), Shirley is a riveting glimpse into the complicated personal lives of Shirley Jackson and her literary critic husband, Stanley Hyman. While it’s a fictional account of their relationship, much of Shirley Jackson’s complex personality on display in the drama is grounded in truth.
Shirley concentrates on the specific period of time in Shirley Jackson’s life when she was working on her novel, Hangsaman. Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) is already well known and vilified in some circles for the disturbing short story, “The Lottery,” and her life as we’re introduced to the artist is one of extended periods in bed, chain-smoking and popping pills washed down with alcohol. The protective shell she’s created by isolating herself away from everyone except her husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) is only pried open during occasional small parties attended by Stanley’s colleagues and fellow professors from Bennington College.
Stanley seems to take perverse joy in critiquing her writing, striking out with his red pen, while at the same time being her most vocal supporter. Meanwhile, his wife’s tenuous hold on reality, her self-doubt, and her need to shelter from outside influences provides a stark contrast to Stanley’s exuberance and extroverted ways.
A young married couple is thrust into this bizarre dichotomy when Stanley arranges for them to stay at his home. The insertion of a pregnant Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman), Stanley’s teaching assistant, adds a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf vibe to the dynamic. The family’s in desperate need of someone to look after Shirley as she’s once again scared away their latest housekeeper. Rose is tapped for that position while Fred seeks to obtain support from his new mentor Stanley in the form of a recommendation to teach at Bennington.
Rose is justifiably leery of being relegated to clean and care for Shirley. However, she’s also undeniably drawn to the brilliance of Shirley’s mind and her unfiltered manner of sharing her most intimate, intensely personal thoughts.
It’s not long into the young couple’s association with Stanley and Shirley that Fred begins to mimic his mentor’s adulterous behavior. While Fred and Stanley’s relationship devolves and becomes increasingly tense, Shirley and Rose’s relationship grows increasingly close. Rose embraces and feeds off Shirley’s psychosis and in turn Shirley finds moments of stillness because of Rose. Shirley’s grasp on reality is made stronger in Rose’s presence, and both women grow tremendously during this period.
This toxic relationship that evolves between the two married couples significantly alters the lives of the four individuals. How it all ends is, appropriately, strange yet satisfying.
Gubbins’ script delves into mental illness, marital relationships, and the inner workings of Shirley Jackson’s writing process. Although it’s not a biopic, Shirley brings the critically acclaimed writer to life and will hopefully introduce Jackson to a new generation of readers.
Emmy Award winner Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) delivers a powerful performance as the titular character. Moss brilliantly inhabits the role, easily portraying a myriad of heightened emotions and displaying real vulnerability. The rapid switch between emotional despair, mania, and joy is fascinating to watch Moss undertake. And while this is indisputably her film, Emmy Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg (The Looming Tower) is outstanding as Shirley’s philandering husband who’s also her biggest cheerleader and the public face of their relationship.
Odessa Young, soon to be seen starring as “Frannie Goldsmith” in The Stand, plays the perfect foil turned co-conspirator to Moss’ Shirley. Young does a terrific job of taking us through Rose’s evolution from an optimistic young wife to an aware, fully realized woman.
Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s stunning cinematography beautifully captures the stunning nuances of this intense, character-driven story.
Shirley leaves much to the viewer’s imagination. What’s real and what’s imagined, does Shirley genuinely care about Rose, and Rose’s ultimate fate are left to debate. Director Josephine Decker’s Shirley is a riveting glimpse into the complicated life of the acclaimed writer driven by a memorable performance by Elisabeth Moss.
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, nudity, language and brief disturbing images
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Date: June 5, 2020
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, and Logan Lerman