Current Issue #488

Film Review:

Elisabeth Moss in Shirley

This adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel fictionalising the life of author Shirley Jackson (1916 – 1965) is headed, of course, by a wonderfully poisonous performance by Elisabeth Moss.

Director Josephine Decker is most famous for the much-filmed short story The Lottery and the revered The Haunting Of Hill House, and this plays like a horror movie of sorts, or at least a tale about horrible people being horrible.

The workaholic Moss (who fitted this one in before the Melbourne-shot The Invisible Man) also looks quite a lot like Jackson in spectacles, wardrobe and hair here but, in the end, can’t quite escape her inherent Elisabeth Moss-ness.

Somewhere in the 1950s a randy young pair of newlyweds, Rose (the Sydney-born Odessa Young) and Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), are on their way to North Bennington, Vermont, so that Fred can take up a teaching assistant position with Professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). Stanley surprisingly insists that the couple stay with him and his wife in their large home, and although Rose is uneasy (knowing Shirley’s near-bogeyman reputation and having read The Lottery on the train), they move in anyway. Rose tends to get overruled often here, but then it is the 50s.

Shirley has spent a long period of time barely getting out of bed, agonising about her writer’s block and obviously laid low by depression and alcoholism (but this is the 50s so those terms aren’t used too). She and Stanley clash about his decision to allow the Nemsers to stay, but soon she’s drawn to Rose and they become uncomfortably close, and you just know that Shirley is both seduced by – and toying with – this naïve young woman.

There are other power games throughout: Stanley demeans Rose by pressuring her into helping out with the household chores, while the slightly dim Fred disapproves of her idea to seek a job; Stanley’s agreement that his affairs with students won’t become a problem is cruelly held over Shirley’s head; and Shirley relishes the chance to freak out faculty members when she’s finally dragged out for a get-together.

And all of this is given plenty of room by one major and problematic decision: Shirley and Stanley are presented as childless, even though in actuality they had four(!) children, which led to Shirley writing books about parenting and even presenting fondly fictionalised versions of her kids in several short stories. Their absence from this imagined story is a script convenience in that the offspring aren’t there to get in the way of all the adult unpleasantness (and to also give Shirley another thing to be angry at Stanley for), but it does feel more than a little dishonest.

It’s also worth asking why this tale needed to be told at all, particularly as it’s not based on any kind of fact, and Shirley can’t be reclaimed as a modern feminist figure given how vicious she was in print about the venom and treachery she saw in relationships of any type between women.

No, in the end, it’s mostly just an opportunity for Moss to channel her skills into a particularly venomous vessel.

Reviewer Rating

Shirley (M) is in cinemas now

DM Bradley

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