Cert TBC, 107 min. Dir: Josephine Decker; Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman
Biopics are so often the least adventurous item on the cinematic menu, but Shirley feels like a meal served up on shattered crockery, at a table where every item of cutlery’s a knife. Josephine Decker’s ambitious, exasperating new film is about the acclaimed mid-20th-century writer Shirley Jackson, whose unsettling stories and novels – The Haunting of Hill House is perhaps her best-known – are typically slotted, not always that comfortably, into the American Gothic tradition.
Yet the deeply uncomfortable events depicted in Shirley, which had its UK premiere on Friday evening (October 9) at the London Film Festival, are in fact themselves fictional. Its screenplay was adapted by Sarah Gubbins not from a biography, or Jackson’s own memoirs, but a 2014 novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, which inserts Jackson and her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, into a toxic-marriage scenario that’s heavily reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, then refracts the results through a Jackson-esque lens. Confused? In all honesty, that seems to be the idea, though the confusion Shirley generates is of a gruelling and not especially rewarding type.
It descends almost as soon as a young couple arrives at the Hyman-Jackson home, a jumbled academic pile in the leafy grounds of a New England college. The newcomers are Fred (Logan Lerman), Stanley’s new teaching assistant, and Rose (Odessa Young), his pretty, domestically biddable and freshly pregnant wife, who reads Shirley’s infamous 1948 short story The Lottery en route, and is unambiguously turned on by what she finds. She is similarly seduced by Shirley herself (Elisabeth Moss), even though the brilliant writer is transparently also a living nightmare – obstreperous and frazzled, with a distinctly witchy aura, even though it’s Lady Macbeth to whom she’s compared by her husband.
That comment – compliment? – comes at the end of the first of a number of disastrous dinners and other social encounters, during which Shirley and Stanley verbally tear chunks out of their young guests and also each other, seemingly just for the fun of it. Moss adopts a clipped, Dorothy Parker-esque mid-Atlantic twang, while Stuhlbarg plays Stanley as a kind of academic Mister Twit, forever unpleasantly grandstanding through a thick beard that sometimes contains visible traces of breakfast. He is also unconvinced by Shirley’s latest endeavour – a story inspired by a missing student on campus, which would become her 1951 novel Hangsaman – though in a sense, here it is Rose who becomes Shirley’s next major project.