SHIRLEY is an Intoxicating Look at a Literary Icon

“What happens to all lost girls? They go mad.”

A couple of years ago, the film Colette was released to a somewhat muted response. The cinematic retelling of the legendary French author who courted both scandal and controversy with all her works was anchored by a brilliant turn from star Kiera Knightley, but also for the way it got into the author’s head and crafted a well-made piece of cinema around the woman she was. Although Colette never found much love in terms of awards that year, it was nonetheless hailed as one of the best author portraits in quite some time for the way it explored what made the unapologetic writer who she was. In an era where every other historical figure’s life is being optioned by one company or another, Neon’s Shirley continues the pattern set forth by Colette, proving that the illustration of someone’s life on film has the possibility to be just as mesmerizing as the one they actually led.

Written and directed by Josephine Decker, Shirley opens with newlyweds Rose and Fred (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman, respectively) arriving at the home of acclaimed professor and writer Stanley Hyman(Michael Stuhlbarg) and his wife Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss). A writer in her own right, Shirley spends her days battling her own demons including alcoholism, agoraphobia and visions of a missing college student which inspires her to write what will be her long-awaited novel.

Let me just make a brief statement about what I think of this film overall; and then I’ll start knocking it. I think that Shirley is one of the most stunning and breathtaking portraits of an iconic writer that’s filled with great dialogue and stirring performances, among a host of other attributes. It’s just a shame that Shirley must share her own film with another story about a couple who, quite frankly, aren’t all that interesting to watch. Far too much time is spent with Rose and Fred to the point where Shirley and Stanley eventually become side characters in the story. There are moments when the relationships between the two couples promises the kind of generational conflict and marital theater the way that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and mother! did. However, these hopes never come to be, leaving us with too many scenes of Rose turning more and more into the housewife she swore she never would become and Fred failing to live up to the potential he thought he had. It’s all too distracting and half-baked to possess any real substance. A critic friend of mine actually posed the notion to me that the younger couple could in fact be imagined figures that have been conjured up by Shirley in the midst of her manic state. It’s an interesting idea, for sure. Yet too much of the film’s structure suggests that these characters do exist in the real world and that their sole function is to better illuminate and explain the role of women in the era of Shirley Jackson as well as the different sides of the spectrum that existed during that time. They needn’t have bothered.

Still, Shirley remains one of the best of the first half of the year thanks to the complexity of it’s main figure. Undoubtedly bi-polar before such a term existed, Shirley is seen reviling in the carnival of emotions living inside her. We see her possessing a Dororthy Parker-like wit at an early party scene and displaying Howard Hawkes behavior in a follow-up one. In between, Shirley is paranoid, hostile and alcoholic. Still, there’s an incredible self-awareness about the author that provides her with one of her few links to the real world. It’s this element which gives her the curiosity to explore the recurring image of the missing college student and her determination to put it down on paper. Thanks to her husband’s presence, Shirley never finds herself alone with her demons for long as Stanley’s (battling manic tendencies of his own) devotion and (endless) fascination with his wife keeps him a constant presence in her life. The symbiotic relationship between them is Shirley’s secret weapon and perhaps one of the most simpatico relationships to ever be shown on screen in recent memory. In what is perhaps the movie’s greatest scene, Stanley slightly chides Shirley for what she feels is a lack of progress of her novel. In a very blunt fashion, Stanley chalks this up to his wife’s lack of knowledge and understanding about the subject matter she’s writing. Naturally, this sends Shirley into a fit of rage which causes Stanley to look at her and ask: “It’s really that good, huh?” A smirking Shirley fakes gruffness as she orders him out of the room, smiling and blushing as he departs.

Young and Lerman do great work here, keeping up with the pace and demands a film like Shirley asks of young actors. It’s just a shame that they aren’t all that necessary when it comes to the story of Shirley Jackson; or at least, this story of Shirley Jackson. It’s Moss and Stuhlbarg who dominate the film due to the relationships both actors have established with their individual characters and each other. Stuhlbarg’s role is tricky as he’s both the film’s pseudo-villain and the main character’s biggest admirer. The fine line he creates between both and the way he blurs them should hopefully garner him awards attention come next year. If Stuhlbarg’s awards chances are desired, Moss’s should be a given. The actress continues to amaze as one of the most daredevil leading ladies of her generation. As Shirley, Moss is not afraid to dance with the real woman’s demons, which she does, commanding the screen while doing it and achieving a level of cinematic rawness that’s a real privilege to watch.

Besides just the acting and character interplay, Shirley boasts some stunning cinematography, an array of dizzying camera movements and quite possibly one of the most electrifying film scores of the year. Much like Shirley does, other recent biopics, including the Oscar-winning Judy and the misguided Seberg, haven’t shied away from blending the factual with the fictional; both coming away with decidedly different results. I’m sure the filmmakers involved with these productions knew the risks when it came to bringing these people’s lives to the big screen; and they accepted them. Decker and her team undoubtedly accepted them too and the result is a biopic that soars overall thanks to the intrigue and vivacity surrounding its heroine. In a manner similar to the woman herself, Shirley is flawed, but more often than not, it’s also utterly absorbing.

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