Writer: Sarah Gubbins (based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel)
Director: Josephine Decker
The life of Gothic novelist Shirley Jackson is reimagined as a slice of the Gothic itself in this sumptuous looking film starring Elisabeth Moss in the lead role. Looking just like Jackson, this must be the best role Moss has had since starring in The Handmaid’s Tale and it seems, thankfully, a million miles from The Invisible Man, her film that sneaked in just before lockdown. But Shirley is not just her film; it also features an excellent performance by Odessa Young and she nearly steals the show.
Despite the exceptional performances, director Josephine Decker struggles to maintain the creepiness and intrigue of the first half. Although set in leafy Vermont in 1950s the film borrows a lot from the Southern Gothic with its big houses, sultry evenings and barely repressed same-sex desire. The camera takes time to follow a crack in the ceiling of Jackson’s house like it’s Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher, foretelling of the splits that are to follow.
Shirley has writer’s block and spends most of her days in bed, soused or hung-over; she can never match the success of her short stories, including The Lottery, that have made her so famous. She compensates for this perceived failure by being nasty to everyone she meets. Her jibes are cruel and she has no time for her husband’s students at nearby Bennington, a women’s college. When a new lecturer and his wife come to live with them she gleefully torments the wife, suggesting that she was pregnant before they were married.
With Shirley drunk all the time, and becoming increasingly agoraphobic, husband Stanley Hyman persuades the new guest to stay on as a kind of housekeeper to cook and keep the rooms clean of glasses and ashtrays. Jackson is horrified, exclaiming ‘ A clean house is a sign of mental inferiority!’ But slowly she begins to welcome Rosie’s presence, and the two women bond in the absence of their husbands who work late but come home drunk.
Unwittingly, Rosie also becomes Jackson’s muse and the author begins writing again, a novel this time, based on local events about a missing student, which becomes her bestselling Hangsaman. As the two women ponder over the student’s disappearance Shirley seems poised to become a whodunnit, with Moss banging away at her typewriter like Jessica Fletcher. But more than mystery, this film is a psychological thriller where women find their own agency away from their controlling husbands.
Young is very watchable in her role as Rosie, full of innocence when she first arrives at Jackson’s house. Too polite to deal with Bohemian manners, she struggles to understand the new society she enters. Young does innocence very well, but she also excels in displaying flickers of desire and knowingness in just a single look. It’s hard to take one’s eyes off her as she grows in confidence and complicity. Moss, with her ink-stained fingers, is flighty and brutal, but she also carries the weight of frustration and disappointment in her shoulders. Together the two actors create sparks like a hammer and anvil.
But Sarah Gubbin’s screenplay, based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, is better in setting the scene than dealing with the plot, and the story meanders in the film’s second half. The story has already been criticised by one of Jackson and Hyman’s four children as misrepresenting his parents, but it is obviously a fictionalised biography, which tries to insert the essence of Jackson’s fictions into her own life in the same way Colm Tóibín did in The Master about Henry James.
If we shouldn’t see this as a biopic, then perhaps it’s best to label this as an erotic thriller, and as such it almost works. It looks classy, with Moss and Young fully inhabiting their roles, but eventually, this Gothic runs out of atmosphere.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October