Not to be confused with a faithful statement of reality, Josephine Decker’s Shirley is based on the semi-biographical novel of the same title by Susan Scarf Merrell. Blending fact and fiction, Shirley draws from the real-life accounts of famed American Gothic writer, Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) writing her sophomore novel Hangsaman in the early fifties – a bildungsroman loosely inspired by the disappearance of a local girl in Jackson’s town. In Shirley, Merrell and Decker introduce the fictionalised young newlywed couple Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young) who come to lodge in Shirley and her husband Stanley’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) house. Stanley is a revered writing critic and professor at Bennington College where Fred acts as his budding research assistant. Expecting a baby, Rose drops out of college and reluctantly agrees to start chipping in with the housework and cooking at Stanley’s request (Shirley’s capricious and snide demeanour has already scared off so many housekeepers and Stanley is desperate for help around the house).
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Soon, Rose’s housekeeping duties fuses into the role of acting as Shirley’s caregiver as her mental health deteriorates. Constantly keeping viewers on their toes, Elisabeth Moss is mesmerising as the eccentric, spiteful and unpredictable Shirley. When she’s not spitting insults or boasting her knowledge of witchcraft, severely agoraphobic Shirley spends her time bedbound for days on end – often having to be dragged out of bed by the ankles by Stanley. As Shirley grows closer to caring for young Rose (or as close as Shirley will allow), the writer in Shirley is sprung back to life. Seeing Rose as her own little muse (and as a stand-in for the missing girl, Paula) Shirley delves back into writing for hours and hours on end, creating her next great masterpiece. Keeping Rose at hand as her own research assistant and proof-reader, Shirley and Rose start to form a beautifully twisted and dynamic relationship that starts to raise eyebrows. ‘Women like Shirley don’t have friends’ Fred warns, a common viewpoint shared across North Bennington.
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Everything in Shirley feels spectacularly tangible – from the wind that whips its way through Shirley’s creaking house, to the constant humming of summer cicadas, to the dirty dishes piling high in the kitchen; ‘a clean house is evidence of mental inferiority’ insists Shirley. Decker creates a remarkably textured and touchable environment of the home that is both a prison for Shirley and a place of sanction from the glares of the outside world. Through her spiralling camera movements and fragmented close-ups, Decker also wonderfully captures the volatile, tactile and ambiguous nature of Shirley and Rose’s connection.
A large reason why Shirley has found such a soft spot for ‘Rosie’ is because Rose reminds Shirley of a younger version of herself – Shirley almost pities Rose as she watches her be swallowed up by a lifestyle they both detest. Both married to members of the English department at Bennington, both Shirley and Rose are enrolled to all the things a faculty wife must be – a charming socialite, a pleasant host at parties, and a patient wife who puts up with all of her husband’s humiliating affairs. Herself now weary and exhausted by the years and years of enforced docility and giving so much of her life to a man who only insults her intelligence, it’s no wonder that Shirley has rejected so much of the world surrounding her.
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It would be so easy to take this as an opportunity to portray this horror legend solely as a fanatic madwoman with a bloodthirst for thrill and toying with people’s emotions but instead, Decker delves deeper, unravelling Shirley’s complex relationship with the world, writing, and particularly her husband. ‘It hurts, this one. It hurts more than the others’ shakes Shirley, tears in her eyes as she talks to Stanley about her latest writing piece. Mapping out the pain in Shirley’s life – her debilitating agoraphobia, an unfaithful husband, and a community of people who have ridiculed her as the town outcast – Decker notes that writing is one of the few escapes from life for Shirley. Creating a hypnotising portrait of loneliness and harrowing anxiety, Decker examines Shirley’s turbulent connection with writing – as she finds it both exhilarating and painstakingly arduous. This agony is only further deepened by her reliance on Stanley for approval and feedback on her work. Despite her callous exterior, Shirley is deeply dependent on her narcissistic husbands’ appraisal and critique – no matter how cruel, how meaningless, and how irrelevant Stanley’s comments are Shirley clings to them with everything she’s got.
The duality of a woman who can sneer at party guests, scare away housekeepers, be painted as the town witch and then tremble with bated breath as she anxiously waits for her nonchalant husband to show her some sign of approval is one of the most enthralling aspects of Shirley. Creating a sublimely detailed portrait of a haunted woman who is both exceedingly malicious and deeply hurting, Decker creates a magnetic and layered psychodrama about one of American literature’s most eccentric geniuses that oozes with sensuality, charm, and bite.
Written by Abi Aherne
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