Shirley is a biopic of dubious intent. It is impeccably made – excellent performances, evocative camerawork and absorbing sound design, but to what end? It presents a fictionalised account of Shirley Jackson – the noted author of The Haunting of Hill House – and depicts not her talent but her supposedly twisted arrogance. It is uninvolving work that says very little about its reimagined subject.
Inspired no doubt by Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the film contrives a warped psychodrama between Shirley (Elisabeth Moss), her husband Stanley Nyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a newlywed couple Rose and Fred Nemser (Odessa Young, Logan Lerman).
Stanley, a gregarious professor at Bennington College, asks Rose if they could help around the house, offering the couple room and board. They accept, realising the opportunities this presents. The whole thing is a ruse, however, for Shirley and Stanley plan on tormenting the couple, driving a wedge between them as they shame Rose for her ‘shotgun wedding’ and Fred for his ‘derivative’ academic abilities.
We see that Jackson has serious issues even before the sick campaign against the Nemsers. An agoraphobic, she is rude, haughty and dysfunctional, with a dash of jealousy to boot. She delights in others’ misfortunes and is visibly excited by opportunities to criticise and ridicule. Her personality goes beyond just bad intent, she is mentally ill, and the film skillfully depicts her maladjustment with extreme close-ups and oppressive diegetic sound – the hum of a light, the chirping of crickets. The score, too, reflects her anxieties, with neurotic piano and plucked strings interspersed with sorrowful choir and fraught double bass.
Stanley appears to be her opposite: sociable, good humoured and enthusiastic. However, he proves to be every bit as nasty and underhand, lavishing Fred with praise only to crush him with a mocking appraisal of his dissertation. “I am insulted by mediocrity”, he proclaims, exuding a most contemptible arrogance. When he’s not pontificating he is a letch, handsy and kissy with a cross-section of the Bennington campus. Shirley, wallowing in her own filth, is too torpid to care.
There isn’t much to consider outside of these horrible characters, we certainly see little of Jackson’s talent. This is due, in part, to the inwardness of writing; the depth of an author’s prose does not transfer to the screen like a boxer’s punch or a dancer’s agility. So, like The Shining and Adaptation before it, we see the odd scene of Jackson at her desk, recording her thoughts before they flitter away, but this tells us little about writer’s canon and legacy.
Indeed, many viewers will leave Shirley with more questions than answers. Are we witnessing fact or fiction here? As someone who knows little of Shirley Jackson, I want to know. The film’s departure from reality, inspired by the non-chronology of Jackson’s texts, is more frustrating than compelling. The Jackson family isn’t happy, either. Laurence Hyman Jackson, Shirley’s son, commented that audiences with no knowledge of his family will “leave thinking my mother was a crazy alcoholic and my father was a mean critic”, adding that the film also failed to portray his mother’s sense of humour. Incidentally, Jackson’s four children are neither featured nor even mentioned in the film, written out of history for some curious reason.
Again, Shirley is skillfully made. Elisabeth Moss continues her streak of winning performances, while Michael Stulhbarg gives another memorable turn. What results, though, is less than the sum of its parts, with the strange imaginings of Susan Merrel’s novel, on which the script is based, a kind of literary defamation.
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