‘Let’s pray for a boy. The world is too cruel to girls…’
Shirley Jackson was an astonishing talent. Her novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House cast a long shadow over every ghost story written since, and her short story the Lottery (which I haven’t read) has also endured. Her talent was seemingly only matched by her personal demons, although it is probably accurate to say that one informed the other. Addiction to both amphetamines and barbiturates resulted in a troubled home life for Jackson, who also struggled with anxiety and agoraphobia. This is often reflected in her claustrophobic novels and off kilter writing style, although also represented in her work is a devilish sense of humour and a caustic wit. Josephine Decker’s biopic Shirley cherry picks the most extreme aspects of Jackson’s personality to form something entertaining, yet probably false.
Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) is our Trojan horse into the home of Jackson (Elizabeth Moss) and her condescending husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stulhbarg). When Rose and her budding professor husband Fred (Logan Lerman) are taken in by Shirley and Stanley, a web of falsehoods, infatuation and chaos begins to be spun.
First off, Elizabeth Moss – perhaps the finest actress in the world right now – is typically wonderful as Jackson. She captures both the manic twinkle in her eye and the utter desperation in her soul as her husband openly philanders for the whole town to see, and her unfinished novel Hangsaman continues to torment her. Moss captures both sides of the Jackson coin perfectly, and does so in a way that is mostly a whole lot of fun. The rest of the cast also impress, with Stulhbarg also having a blast as the ghastly blow hard Hyman. Indeed, the first hour of Decker’s homage is both wildly compelling and utterly enthralling, but the film eventually runs out of steam before settling on a frustratingly ordinary conclusion.
The disappointing destination doesn’t make the journey any less fun however, and Shirley is a film that will appeal to long-time fans and newcomers alike. A shimmering portrait of madness mixed with an incredible talent.