- Emma Simmonds
- 9 October 2020
LFF 2020: Elisabeth Moss and Josephine Decker explore the world of Shirley Jackson with panache
Josephine Decker brings something very special to the literary biopic in the beguiling Shirley, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell. The director of Madeline's Madeline applies her avant-garde audacity to the life of American horror writer Shirley Jackson, author of The Haunting of Hill House. With much of the material an invention, Decker instead captures the feel of Jackson's artistic process, the power of her personality, and what it's like to fall under the spell of a genius. Playing the author, Elisabeth Moss is typically sensational.
The story is set in 1964, towards the end of Jackson's life (she died, aged 48, a year later). Odessa Young's Rose is our way into Shirley's terrifying, intoxicating world. She's a wide-eyed young fan of Jackson's fiction, invited to stay with the writer and her flamboyant professor husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) in North Bennington, Vermont, after her own spouse Fred (Logan Lerman) secures a position assisting the academic.
When Rose first meets her, Shirley seems an entirely unfriendly, witchy type, playing up to her role of local pariah and unable to leave the house. What initially seems like an adoring marriage is revealed as controlling and twisted, with Stanley routinely cheating on his famous wife. In public, he is Shirley's greatest fan, steeping himself in her glory, whilst in private he can be her harshest critic. They share a sense of intellectual superiority though, bonding in moments where they can mercilessly belittle others.
Shirley is working on a novel (invented for the purposes of the story) that she believes could be her masterwork; it's inspired by the case of a missing student – Stanley, of course, thinks the subject is 'beneath her'. When she enlists Rose to help her with research, it's the start of a mutual infatuation, with Decker and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (who did groundbreaking work on Victoria) capturing the heady intensity of the liaison. It's a fluidly shot film that blurs the real and imagined, showing the way creative ideas spring forth and take shape, feelings fester, and alliances are forged and broken.
Screening on Fri 9, Sat 10, Sun 11 and Tue 13 Oct and on BFI Player as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020. In cinemas from Fri 30 Oct.