MIFF 68½ – Shirley (2020)

Shirley is a thoroughly fictionalised biopic of Shirley Jackson, one of the central writers of the 20th century, best known for her short story “The Lottery” (1948) and her novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel into a screenplay by Sarah Gubbins which was directed by Josephine Decker, the film provides more of an impression of Shirley Jackson’s life as filtered through several perspectives, including the perspective of an invented viewpoint character created to echo aspects of Jackson’s life and work.

The story is set in North Bennington, Vermont, late in the author’s life, when her literary reputation is well established and she’s suffering from declining health. Her husband Stanley is a respected critic, teaches at Bennington College, and is openly unfaithful. We are introduced to them through the perspective of Rose Nemser (a fan of Shirley’s work) whose husband has been offered a teaching position at the college. Recently married and short of money, Stanley offers them free room and board in return for Rose filling the role of the absent housekeeper (who we are told has recently quit). As Rose is gradually accepted by Shirley and becomes closer to her, Shirley in turn becomes obsessed with the recent disappearance of a 17-year-old girl, inspiring her to begin work on a new novel.

The versions of Shirley and Stanley seen here are inspired by the historical people, but with certain biographical changes and exaggerated characteristics. The historical Shirley was raising four children at this period in her life, but the household here is childless, until Rose (already pregnant) gives birth later in the film. Although her writing included supernatural incidents, the real Shirley didn’t have much time for religion or superstition, while the Shirley portrayed here uses Tarot cards and flirts with fertility rituals. Shirley’s husband really was a controlling individual who demanded an open relationship and slept with his students, but the exaggerated version of him portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg extends his controlling behaviour to gaslighting regarding her health and a level of jealous possessiveness about her writing which makes him more a symbolic stand-in for toxic 1950s academic masculinity.

Shirley and Stanley dominate both the movie and their tenants. Stanley and Rose’s husband Fred have barely met before Fred’s behaviour begins to change to match his mentor. A brief break in conversation with his wife to address a female student foreshadows a pattern of infidelity to which Rose remains oblivious until after the birth of their child. Fred’s first fumbling lecture is so transparently modelled in its style on Stanley’s that it’s embarrassing, although Stanley lavishes him with praise afterwards (before providing a harsh assessment of his work as derivative).

The relationship between Shirley and Rose is far more complex. Rose struggles to penetrate the prickly exterior of her literary idol, a woman who has alienated most of the town (an effect exacerbated by stories told by her husband). Shirley gradually allows Rose more access to her life in fits and starts, alternating conspiratorial conversations with piercing character critiques. Although it appears at first that Shirley has come to rely on Rose, the nature of their relationship gradually changes as an element of sexual fascination (likely never consummated) emerges, until it becomes apparent that Rose has become dependent on their connection and has even come to self-identify with the central character of Shirley’s new novel – a shift in dynamic which, it is suggested, may have been deliberately orchestrated.

The casting of the role of Shirley Jackson is the single most important element of this film, and Elisabeth Moss is phenomenal in the role, providing a compellingly complex central performance. Although she is playing a version of the author as filtered through other women’s interpretations of her fiction, the core of her performance feels infused with the spirit of the authentic Shirley Jackson and her interpretation of the role influenced how one of the key final moments in the film played out.

Although it’s difficult for me to judge the success of this movie as an adaptation, since I haven’t read the original novel, and any biographical insights drawn solely from the film should be taken with a hefty chunk of salt, Josephine Decker has given us a powerful gothic-tinged character exploration which resonates with Shirley Jackson’s work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s