REVIEW: Shirley (2020) asks “Who’s Afraid of Shirley Jackson?”

Rating: 4 out of 4.

“Decker continues on her journey of finding new ways in which to explore the experience of artistic creation on screen”

Josephine Decker has established herself as one of the most interesting directors working today. With Shirley, she has created a biopic that breaks free from the lazy retelling of an author’s life, instead allowing the work to be reflective of its subject’s work. Set during the 1950s, the film focuses on an episode in the life of acclaimed horror writer Shirley Jackson, as her and her husband have a young couple board with them for a while.

The film carries similar themes to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962); the older couple playing psychological games with the rosy-eyed young lovers, with an almost endless amount of duplicity and secrecy spilling out as we go along. However, Shirley is much more visually dynamic. Although not quite as abrasive as Decker’s previous film, Madeline’s Madeline (2018), Shirley is visually thrilling. There is rarely a static moment in the film, and when it feels like there is it is wrought with tension and unease. In this way, Decker seems to have captured the very dread that Jackson created with her prose and translated into film.

It is a shame that some of the visual flare of Madeline’s Madeline was lost in the making of Shirley. Although this seems to have made the film more popular with those who didn’t enjoy the anxiety inducing verve of the former, I had hoped for a progression of this style, in this sense Shirley feels almost like one step forward and two steps back. The film is of a much higher scale than Madeline’s Madeline in terms of budget and star power, however we seem to have lost some of the flare that made me fall in love with Decker’s work.

Elisabeth Moss does well to make up for some of this, giving an incredibly physical performance of Jackson, seeming at times almost possessed by her. The sizzling cynicism of the author felt like a real outlet for Moss, who is so often confined to roles that begin as submissive before gaining the confidence to fight back. In Shirley, she comes out fighting. Credit must also be given to Michael Stuhlbarg, whose role as Jackson’s husband – literary critic Stanley Hyman – is one of the sleeziest performances I’ve ever seen, and makes the viewer feel at constant unease with his mere presence.

Shirley seems at its best when portraying the peculiar relationship between Jackson and Rose, one half of the young couple boarding with the author. The fiery and liberating relationship the two share fights back against the image of the subdued domestic goddess often attributed to married women in the 1950s, instead depicting them as loudly protesting against the roles they were forced into.

Decker continues on her journey of finding new ways in which to explore the experience of artistic creation on screen, and although we may have lost some of the vivacity of her previous work, Shirley shows that Decker is ready to step into more mainstream independent cinema with a biopic that will last long in the memory of all those who see it.

Director: Josephine Decker
Screenwriters: Sarah Gubbins, Susan Scarf Merrell (adapted from)
Producers: Alison Rose Carter, Sarah Gubbins, Cherilyn Hawrysh, David Hinojosa, Simon Horsman, Elisabeth Moss, Sue Naegle, Martin Scorsese, Jeffrey Soros, Alisa Tager, Christine Vachon
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman
Release Date: 5th of June 2020
Available On: Hulu, iTunes Store, Vudu, Fandango

Shirley official trailer.

Header image courtesy of Neon