Less a by-the-numbers biopic and more an unconventional sketch of a woman’s creative process, Shirley is a hazy portrait of American cult horror writer, Shirley Jackson. Based on a Susan Scarf Merrell’s fictional novel, the film imagines a period of time when a newly married couple, Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman), move in with Shirley (Elizabeth Moss) and her academic husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg). While their husbands work together at the local college, Rose and Shirley are left alone in the Jacksons’ creaking house with Rose playing housewife and carer to Shirley who is beginning work on what will eventually become The Hangsman. Soon Rose becomes a muse and assistant to Shirley’s creative process, while her sheen of housewife begins to tarnish the more time she spends with Shirley.
All of this has the potential for biopic staleness but Shirley is being driven by director, Josephine Decker, best known for her unyielding indie Madeline’s Madeline about a dance trope. A fictional autobiography might seem like an unusual move for Decker but her sophisticated eye for movement and skill working with actors (Decker is one herself) is the perfect fit for the film’s queasy dynamics as Shirley and Stanley begin toying with their new lodgers as Rose and Shirley develop their own codependent relationship much to their husbands’ agitation.
This is the first time Decker is working from someone else’s material and there are moments where her vision, seen through the lens of cinematographer, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, and the constraints of a dialogue-heavy screenplay bristle against each other. However, that tension between the language of words and images works so well in destabilising the viewer and blurring the lines of subjectivity that it’s hard to see it as a minus. With Shirley, Decker proves how insightful and dangerous a biopic has the potential to be – in the right hands.
Shirley was seen and reviewed at the Berlin Film Festival 2020.