Historically, women are defined and limited by the terms set by men. Under labels such as “hysteria” in days past or “too emotional” in the current conversation, it seems that the only true understanding of the complex issues and responses surrounding women is found within other women. Shirley elegantly illustrates this idea, showing the figure of Shirley Jackson as tortured and walking the fine line of reality and mania. Through the companionship and juxtaposition of a younger woman, a parallel and foil to Shirley, we get an intimate glimpse into the relationships of women especially those that are restricted by the circumstances surrounding them.
Shirley is a fictional adaptation of the famous writer’s life, rather than an attempt at biography, written by Sarah Gubbins and directed by Josephine Decker. The film stars Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, and Elisabeth Moss as the famed Gothic horror writer, Shirley Jackson. The film was an official selection of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Special Jury Prize in Auteur Filmmaking.
This Small World of Women
In Shirley, famed Gothic horror writer Shirley Jackson has her life, routine, and sanctuary of isolation turned upside down when a newlywed couple takes up temporary residence in her home. At the precipice of writing her most famous novel and in an increasingly tense relationship with her husband and his infidelities, Shirley’s resentment of the young bride and her companionship quickly turns to a sort of odd intimacy. Nevertheless, the bitter middle-aged couple can’t help but toy with the futures of their young guests.
The world of Shirley is an exploration of the world of women. Contained in its runtime is a very complete picture of the connected experiences of women, experiences that are elegantly woven together and discussed through the scope of a strong and unconventional female voice. Consider, for a moment, the female figures of Shirley. First, there is the young college-aged woman who disappeared and is the subject of Shirley’s most current project. An unseen character whose story is so well-known and common among women that her name becomes the name for all. Even Shirley says, “Do not tell me that I don’t know this girl.” Any female viewer knows this girl, could be this girl.
Among the feminine themes explored in the film is this connection between women and mental health. Women are socially thought of as the more emotionally in-tune of the sexes. We’re coded that way and, therefore, troubles of the mind and emotion are inherently gendered as well. Shirley cuts a striking figure in this space, as she suffers from anxiety and her mental illness is viewed as married to her literary genius. This makes it easier for her husband, both in the film and in real life, to dismiss her needs and seize control of her creative agency and finances.
The connection and shared experiences of womanhood are artfully on display in Shirley. Through Shirley’s relationship with the young woman living in her home, we are shown a parallel of age and experience versus youthful optimism. These two women experience the same stifling sexism, neutered agency, and withheld opportunity, but sit at different moments in their respective lives. On one end sits the jaded Shirley, on the other is a young woman who is just now learning what her place in the world is.
“More Than Just Faculty Wives”
The relationship between Shirley and Rose is at the epicenter of this film. The two circle each other in that “opposite attraction” sort of way, running parallel to one another while being hopelessly drawn into the other’s orbit. For Shirley, the duality of jealousy and pity define her relationship with Rose. She’s envious of youth, beauty, and the happy shine of a new marriage. She’s envious of Rose’s naivety and that envy causes her to be spiteful and harsh.
However, the other side of that coin is pity. Shirley sees exactly what Rose has laid out in front of her. The loving husband’s head turns, accomplishments are reduced and controlled, and all that’s left to show for it is an empty house and a baby. That pity draws Shirley and Rose to this very strange place of intimacy. They’re friends, they’re tormenters, they rely on each other, and perhaps even love one another. There is a conspiratorial nature to their relationship that reveals the truth of both characters. They draw out the worst in each other, as a recognition of that lost potential. A truly fascinating relationship that is perfectly captured by Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young.
Shirley, as a story, can be unpacked in layers and layers and layers. It’s elegantly built and complex in its structure. But it’s the practical elements of Shirley that make that possible. Shirley is absolutely an actor’s piece and Elisabeth Moss is phenomenal. Truly, Moss is most at home playing this very deep and raw version of women. She has a haunting quality to her that makes you believe every moment of Shirley’s story. Odessa Young and Michael Stuhlbarg are the perfect foils to Moss, while shining in their own right. The ensemble is small but the performances feel massive and weighty.
If there was a single flaw in Shirley, it would be that the film leans too heavily into its own Gothic themes. The caricature of a haunting does a bit of a disservice to a story that is already interesting enough on its own. That being said, the setting of the house and the woods where Shirley and Rose explore is as seductive as any other element.
Shirley is a spellbinding piece that sits heavily on your chest, like a malevolent presence. Elisabeth Moss is absolutely incredible in the role and it’s impossible to look away from her. To paraphrase the film itself, Shirley holds you with a sense of dread that is truly terrible… and goddamn, it’s wonderful.
Are you familiar with the works of Shirley Jackson? Let us know in the comments!
Shirley will be available everywhere on June 5, 2020.
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.