Shirley: Film Review


I had been looking forward to seeing Shirley for months, basically since its U.S. release back in June, because I was intrigued to see Elisabeth Moss play reclusive author Shirley Jackson, but I didn’t love the story this movie told.

This biographical drama, based on the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, begins with the arrival of newly married couple Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rosie (Odessa Young). Fred is beginning a new job at Bennington College, where Shirley’s husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor, and they have been offered a place to stay at their home while they find their feet. It sounds like a nice gesture at first but it soon becomes a nightmare for the couple as Shirley and Stanley take great pleasure in bringing them down and causing tension within their marriage.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Josephine Decker‘s previous movie Madeline’s Madeline because it was so experimental and weird but I had high hopes for Shirley as I assumed it would be more grounded in realism, given that it’s a biographical drama. And it is, to a degree, but it’s still a bit odd in places, especially in scenes of Shirley writing or thinking about a missing college girl named Paula, the subject of her latest novel.

I would have preferred a straight-up biopic about the famed author of The Haunting of Hill House. The novel and this film adaptation are a work of fiction but use many actual details from Shirley’s life, such as her heavy smoking, bouts of depression and agoraphobia, and acceptance of Stanley’s infidelity, so I found those aspects enlightening and interesting, but I thought too much attention was placed on Rosie and at one point, she felt like the centrepiece of the movie.

Moss always gives her performances 100% and I cannot fault her commitment to this mean-spirited part, while Stuhlbarg is perfectly cast as the self-important literary academic who loves the sound of his own voice. They both elevate the material and make it far more compelling than it should have been. Young was excellent as Rosie, who becomes increasingly unhappy in her marriage, and Lerman has the smallest role but doesn’t let the team down. I enjoyed watching their conversations around the dinner table – the dialogue in those scenes was very well written – but the film loses its way when it focuses too much on Shirley and Rosie’s burgeoning friendship/romance.

I don’t really know what I was expecting from Shirley but this wasn’t it. I still liked many aspects of it, like the performances and the dialogue, but the story didn’t satisfy me at all.

Seen as part of the London Film Festival. In cinemas from Friday 30th October

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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