Writing is a cerebral process that does not lend itself easily to the screen. From The Shining to Adaptation to Delirious, the cinematic history of showing writers honing their craft is a rocky road. Shirley aims to expose us to bits of Shirley Jackson’s creative process, but much like the character herself, we never get to see the full picture.
The film is an adaptation of the novel by the same name, written by Susan Scarf Merrell. It focuses on a young couple, Rose and Fred (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) as they have just arrived in Vermont for Fred to teach at Bennington College. They have been offered a room with writer and faculty member Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). Stanley himself is quite the character, but he is nothing compared to his wife, the well-known horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss).
The reveal of Shirley in the film is itself an indication of the manner by which we will get to know Shirley. When Rose and Fred arrive at the house, their hosts are in the middle of having a big party. Rose wanders into the living room, and hears Shirley before she sees her. As she and the camera glide through the crowd we catch pieces of Shirley, sitting on the couch with every single person in that large room hanging on her every word. Then, as Shirley’s story ends and an unseen voice in the crowd asks her a question about herself, she snips back and makes it very clear that her charisma should not be confused with friendliness. We will never get close to her.
This is how the rest of the film, particularly Rose and Shirley’s friendship, develops. Perhaps their relationship is better described as a “mutual fascination,” but the increased comfort and time invested with one another nearly mimics a friendship in behaviour if not intention. Just as soon as we feel like we are learning more about Shirley, she pivots and pulls herself back into herself once again.
Another running theme in Shirley is the author’s development of her latest story. She writes of hauntings and murders, and seeks to haunt her own head with the darkness necessary to chug out these vile characters. Drawing inspiration from cases around Bennington, as well as her husband and her new toy Rose, Shirley toils and wrestles with the demons she is trying her best to get onto the page.
Moss does not disappoint in her portrayal of the complicated author. While we are never able to get close to Shirley it never feels for a second that Shirley does not understand herself. Stuhlbarg also rises to deliver a performance deserved by the equally tangled Stanley. While it may not be clear to Rose or Fred how anyone could live with either of them, with the chemistry between Shirley and Stanley it is easy to see that they deserve each other.
Director Josephine Decker also proves herself again as a director to watch. Balancing metaphor with character, and showing a casual disinterest in the comfort and desire of the audience, there is a heavy hand at the helm in Shirley and she knows precisely what she is doing.
If you are hoping that Shirley is the type of biopic that teaches you all about the subject’s life, you will be disappointed. If you are hoping that Shirley mimics any of the ghastly atmosphere or biting satire within the titular subject’s own works, you will be disappointed. However, if you settle in to spend a little time with complicated characters on their own terms, Shirley is a beautiful change of pace.