Elisabeth Moss is spellbinding in Josephine Decker’s chaotic drama Shirley that has a story that isn’t on the same level as the performances and style.
When we first meet Shirley (Elisabeth Moss), soon to become America’s queen of horror fiction. She seems to be a sad, drunken shut-in, married to a cheating English professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) and blocked as a writer. With the arrival of Rose (Odessa Young) and her teaching-assistant husband Fred (Logan Lerman). Shirley reveals herself as a far crueller and more sophisticated creature. Seducing the innocent girl into becoming her companion and accomplice in the new mystery novel she is writing.
Shirley’s continuing rise in the book world is hard for her to cope with and as she shuts herself in more and more. Stanley decides that it is his time to shine and will use her fame to create a bit of glory for himself amongst the University that he works in. A perfect epitome of this is in the opening. Stanley holding court for all who will listen as Shirley sits away wanting as little attention and doing anything bar telling everyone that they are going to die and urinating on the carpet to make the evening end. Michael Stuhlbarg is terrific here as the smarmy too full of himself Stanley. At next to no point does the audience feel for him, he is the perfect unlikeable character in my eyes.
We meet our young couple soon after and their entire presence is unwanted in Shirley’s home. With Rose having to housekeep for Shirley and Stanley as they stay at the house. She begins to treat Rose as one of her characters in her book who has based off a real-life missing girl. Depressed and filled with the need to torment to keep writing her book, Shirley needs Rose far more than she thinks.
Sexual tension is filled throughout Rose and Shirley’s relationship. Shirley fed up with her unhappy marriage and possibly more aware of her husband’s indiscretions than he would like to think. She finds solace in Rose. Or is she just playing with Roses emotions even more by switching to a tender touch when she has pushed perhaps too far. As Rose goes down an unexpected route. Was this caused by Shirley’s mental torment or was she the correct trigger that Rose needed to become the woman she was always destined to be?
Elisabeth Moss continues her trend of being amazing in everything she is in. In fact it is hard to think of a time when she wasn’t great in a film or show. She is eating up the scenery at every moment in Shirley but allows her co-stars enough room to not be over-shadowed. This allows the entire cast to shine in their roles and brings out the best in everyone.
Odessa Young as stated refuses to be held down in her role as Rose and plays the role of an intelligent woman who is forced not to be an academic like her husband. Instead to be a housekeep to a woman who would rather not have a soul around her. It is a gutsy performance and Young works so well with Moss in their scenes together.
Those expecting a typical biopic of Shirley Jackson are in for a hell of surprise with this film. This is not a biopic at all and is, in fact, a film starring Jackson told as one of her novels. It is a clever concept and when Shirley works and is in full flow, it is a joy (though stressful) to watch. But an unbalanced feel is difficult to shift from your mind.
Where the film slightly fails is in the story itself. By trying to keep our characters’ motives and actions a bit of a mystery in the first act. Shirley has a feel that it is trying to catch up with itself needlessly. Shirley will be a polarising film, you will either love the refrained power of it. Or you will think that it simply reined in far too much and it is merely the performances that make the film work. There are cases for both sides which is disappointing as there is a real want to love it, but it is understandable.
Additionally, it is hard to root for any of the characters here. Usually, there is at least one character within a group that the audience can link on. For a time it is assumed it is Rose until she begins to go down her path. I have seen the film thrown in the horror genre and it is very much wrongly placed there. It is merely a drama that struggles to break away from itself to become what it truly wants to be.
Unfortunately, it feels that Shirley was not fully fleshed out as a story. But, the performances from our four leads help the film to some form of success. A slight disappointment.
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