Wednesday 7 October 2020

Shirley (Josephine Decker, 2020)


Thou Wast Mild and Lovely was one of two films (the other being Butter on the Latch) by Josephine Decker that screened at the 2014 London Film Festival, and it proved to be an an absorbing if rather oblique effort.  Decker's Shirley, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell about The Legend of Hell House author Shirley Jackson, is a much more direct work, and it screens at this year's LFF from Friday until Monday.  Shirley is not your usual biopic, but rather has more in common with the likes of The Damned United, which was also based on a novel in which the author liberally interpreted a specific period in its subject's life.  As with The Damned United, which focused on football manager Brian Clough's brief, ill-fated spell in charge of Leeds United, Shirley isn't scared to get among the demons that scratch away inside the genius it depicts.

Elisabeth Moss, one of the finest high-profile actors currently working, is predictably great as Jackson, a woman who struggled with several debilitating conditions as she strove to realise her writing projects.  Michael Stuhlbarg, that fine actor from the Coens' A Serious Man, plays Jackson's husband, the critic and academic Stanley Hyman.  Hyman is far from the ideal spouse, and this crashing bore plays a very strange game with his wife, appearing to care while constantly looking to undermine Shirley and her work  It must be said that the razor-sharp Shirley is no stranger herself to playing games, and there are many occasions when she gives back at least as good as she gets.  When a young couple enters Shirley and Stanley's home, they prove a fine diversion for the difficult author and her boorish husband, who take to toying with these rather green newlyweds. 

Rosie and Fred Nemser (Odessa Young, Logan Lerman) are the pair who temporarily move into Jackson's Vermont home; the callow Fred is hoping to secure a tenure at the college where Stanley teaches, while the pregnant Rosie soon gets railroaded into cooking, cleaning, and keeping a watchful eye on Shirley.  Rosie is very interested in Shirley and her work, and although the younger woman is initially treated with contempt by the established writer, the two gradually form a strange bond; on the evidence presented in Shirley, one might conclude that Jackson was incapable of forming a straightforward relationship with anyone.  While the dynamic between these two women is developing, Stanley is busy manipulating the earnest Fred, who is continually badgering his mentor for feedback on his dissertation; Stanley basically strings Fred along and clearly has no intention of appointing this younger, more attractive man to a position that might prove distracting for the cohort of all-female Bennington College.    

Shirley is both well acted and well made, and Moss does very well in a tricky role, one in which she remains sympathetic even when playing elaborate psychological games with the undeserving Nemsers; while Stanley certainly deserves every brickbat that's slung his way, Fred and Rosie arrive in town as an optimistic young couple who simply want to settle down and get on in life, yet both are eventually worn down by the cynical nature and casual cruelty of their hosts.  Comparisons with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are inevitable, but the impressive Shirley, which boasts none other than Martin Scorsese as its executive producer, is very much its own movie, one that will hopefully see the talented Josephine Decker find a much wider audience.

Darren Arnold