“Women like Shirley don’t have friends.” And Josephine Decker’s Shirley shows exactly why. Not that her portrait of horror writer, Shirley Jackson – she of The Haunting Of Hill House fame – is a conventional bio-pic or especially based on fact, but as a picture of somebody blessed with writing talent and cursed by a venomous temperament, it has an unexpectedly magnetic quality. And most of that is down to Elisabeth Moss in the title role.
A winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it focuses on the relationship between Shirley, her professor husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and young couple Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young), who stay at their home while Fred rises up the teaching ranks at the university. Shirley isn’t especially welcoming: there are days when she finds it hard to get out of bed, others when she surfaces only to dig her talons into those around her. She’s almost too much for her more outgoing husband, but he manages to exert control over her writing, demanding to read everything she produces. With the arrival of Rose, she has someone new to torment – ironic, really, because the young woman is something of an admirer.
It’s a set-up more than a little reminiscent of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf – the warring older couple, the drink fuelled venom and the younger couple caught in the crossfire. Only in this case, the conflict between Shirley and Stanley comes laced with a twisted sense of humour – Rose describes it as making one feel “terrifically horrible” – as the two seem to feed on manipulating others. It’s subtle and insidious, full of passive aggression, with Shirley at the centre, taunting, glowering, lashing out and alienating. No wonder she doesn’t have any friends. Not even Rose because, for somebody as afflicted as Shirley, something that’s positive for her is the complete opposite for everybody around her. It’s her own personal horror story.
The film’s biggest strength is that it provides Moss with a role to get her teeth into, and she does so with relish, delving into her character’s deep seated problems and creative genius. Her Shirley is suffering from severe anxiety as she starts writing a story about the disappearance of a local student and starts to identify strongly with the lost girl. And that anxiety is combined with agoraphobia, so that simply going out is torture and the social events that Stanley expects her to attend are worse – so much so that she sits by herself like a malevolent spider glowering at the tangled web of humanity in front of her. Moss is as superb as you’d expect, making her repellent character both fascinating and, just occasionally, sympathetic. But let’s not overlook her opposite number, Stuhlbarg, probably the most under-recognised supporting actor around, yet again subsuming himself inside another character with his customary skill and subtlety.
While the two main performances are outstanding, the film as a whole doesn’t quite live up to them. It’s a tense piece, relieved by the pitch black humour which takes some of the bitterness of the script. But it’s real problem is that, as the conclusion arrives, it becomes clear that it doesn’t really know where it’s going, making for an ending that results in confusion and emptiness. Thank goodness, then, for the Moss and Stuhlbarg double act, which never backs away from telling the absolute – and toxic – truth.
Drama | Cert: 15 | Curzon Artificial Eye | Curzon Home Cinema, 30 October 2020 | Dir. Josephine Decker | Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, Odessa Young.