Biopics continue to garner significant attention from Oscar voters, but most adhere to a simplistic formula to highlight a singular marquee performance. Labeled as “Oscar Bait”, several (vaguely) true tales like Judy and The Darkest Hour failed to muster much passion from audiences despite bolstering commendable, award-winning performances at their core. While the latest biopic Shirley is unlikely to draw voter’s interest, it’s hypnotic and surrealist bend successfully subvert the tried and true genre.
Shirley follows Rose (Odessa Young), a young professional stuck as the submissive wife to her aspiring husband Fred (Logan Lerman). When the couple moves to the house of Fred’s professor boss Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), Rose finds herself as the caretaker for his reclusive wife Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), an acclaimed author who discovers newfound inspiration from Rose’s company.
Madeline’s Madeline Director Josephine Decker broke out with her uniquely audacious experimental edge, with her well-tuned perspective enhancing Shirley’s slight narrative. Decker’s camerawork intimately captures perspective, with freehand movements encapsulating emotion with impact. It’s great to see a filmmaker freely explore her central subject without adhering to a specific formula, using her unique techniques to tap into Shirley’s distorted mindset.
The subversive edge Decker implements is visually vivid while also working effectively to capture Shirley’s writing process. Working in tandem with Sarah Gubbins’ thoughtfully-constructed screenplay, the duo offers interesting insights into Shirley’s relationship with Rose, whose lingering discontentment produces an ideal artistic muse for the acclaimed writer. Gubbins’ script is able to explore the complex relationship artists have with their inspirations, shrewdly leaving audiences guessing the legitimacy of Shirley’s attachments.
Continuing her impressive streak of winning performances (Her Smell and Invisible Man), Elisabeth Moss encapsulates Shirley’s unique quirks to a tee while still portraying a sense of humanity under the surface. Few actors utilize a sense of physicality like Moss, with showy, yet grounded, displays of emotion being endlessly captivating to witness. Dedicated character actor Michael Stuhlbarg paints Stanley with a biting acidic edge, evoking a charming disposition that conceals a creepy possessive edge. The chess matches that Moss and Stuhlbarg share on-screen are intoxicating, with Stanley trying (and failing) desperately to control Shirley’s cunning intellect.
It’s bizarre to think that Shirley’s weakest link lies in its central protagonist. Odessa Young provides a sturdy performance as Rose, but the character (along with Lerman’s Fred) feels too-much like a symbolic archetype rather than a lived-in person. The moments where Young shares the screen with Moss are magnetic, but I was left wanting more time for their relationship to render (particularly in the third act, which features a jarring time jump before its inevitable conclusion).
By defying standard biopic conventions, Shirley offers an inspired portrait well-turned with its protagonist’s inventive mindset.
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