Released: 9th July
Seen: 4th December
Shirley Jackson is perhaps best known as the author of the book The Haunting of Hill House, a book that’s been adapted multiple times into films (both a beloved 1963 version and a reviled 1999 version) and into the recent hit Netflix series. She has been named as an influence on authors like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman among a slew of others. Her work has stood the test of time and now at last we have a biopic about her. The biopic happens to be a genre I’m not exactly fond of because usually they are all very similar… which is why an exception like Shirley is much appreciated.
Shirley opens not with Shirley Jackson but with Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) and her husband Fred (Logan Lerman). Fred is a lecturer at a college while Rose is still a student and they have both found themselves pulled under the wings of Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his wife Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss). Stanley offers Rose and Fred room and board in exchange for their helping around the house, something done in order to try and help alleviate stress from Shirley who is having a hard time working on her new book ‘Hangsaman’. What unfolds is a battle of wits between Rose and Shirley, while Stanley and Fred… uh… they do something but it’s unimportant.
What sets this biopic apart is that it’s not true… at all, even slightly. Shirley’s son has called it out for that, the Nemsers never existed, it’s even more fake than most biopics (and most biopics are kind of BS, that’s why they’re biopics and not documentaries) but what it decides to do instead is to give you an essence of Shirley. Using the odd horror trope here and there to create an atmosphere, we get to see this woman who has slowly let alcohol and her neurosis cause her problems with her writing. It’s less about telling a real story and more about exploring the mindset of a legendary author who had a lot of problems.
With its focus being mostly on Shirley’s state of mind, it’s fair to say that the performance that’s really worth discussing is that of Elisabeth Moss. Sure, everyone else does completely adequate work and one could argue that the film is about Rose as much as it’s about Shirley but let’s be real, the only performance in this film that actually matters to the story and to the culture at large is what Elisabeth Moss is doing. Her portrayal of Shirley is incredible, in every way. Every move she makes, every breath she takes, you’ll be watching her. From the way that she delivers a snarky line to her facial expressions that’re so specific that she barely needs to do anything other than shoot someone a look in order to take them to pieces.
Luckily for this film, it almost never cuts away from Shirley because it knows exactly where all out attention is going. When it does occasionally decide to stay with the Nemsers for a little bit, that’s when the film almost completely vanishes into nothing. Without the electric performance by Elisabeth Moss to carry it, this film just stops being interesting. This isn’t to say that the two people playing the Nemsers aren’t good actors, they are. Odessa Young basically is the main person who bounces off of what Elisabeth Moss is doing and Logan Lerman… I mean, he’s been doing good stuff for 20 years despite looking 16 years old for most of that time, he’s fine here but barely interacts with the interesting part of the movie.
Shirley is, to be blunt, nothing more than a showcase for Elisabeth Moss and what a showcase it is. It kinda bugs me knowing for a fact that THIS is what she is more likely to get an Oscar nomination for over her work in Invisible Man but that’s just what’s more than likely going to happen. It helps knowing that the film itself is a visually interesting piece that plays with horror elements and occasional moments of content that might as well be signposted “Please can a drag queen lip sync to this piece of dialogue” (Tell me the scene where Shirley pours wine casually over a couch isn’t destined to end up on a mixtape in a club somewhere, I dare you). If you want to see how one actress can completely carry an entire film, here’s a prime example of that.