Written by Sarah Gubbins
Directed by Josephine Decker
This is not a biopic about Shirley Jackson. This is an adaptation of a novel that is, in turn, a fictionalized version of Jackson’s life. In particular, it focuses on the tension between Jackson and her husband Stanley Hyman, a literary critic and professor. The film attempts to tell this story in the style of the writer’s gothic psychological short stories, with lots of people descending into a realistic form of madness. There’s no homicide involved, just humans breaking down and resisting saying the most horrible things to each other. On paper, this sounds fantastic, but something happens in the translation that renders the film lacking in the emotional impact I believe it should have had.
Jackson (Elizabeth Moss) and her husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) reside in Vermont as he works at Bennington College. The professor has hired Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) as his teaching assistant for the semester, and Fred has brought along his newlywed and pregnant wife Rose (Odessa Young). Rose is deeply familiar with Jackson’s work but discovers the author has some profound mental and emotional issues. Hyman tasks Rose with the care of the house and to keep an eye on Jackson. Jealousy exists between the elder husband and wife when it comes to her creative talents, and he wants to keep her from penning a novel about a young female student who died in their college town.
I have to say my personal reading of Shirley Jackson’s work is sorely lacking. I have read the standard set of short stories most people are familiar with, but I haven’t done a considerable deep dive into her work like I know that I should. That said, I was looking forward to this movie just from the premise of a fictionalized take on an author that focused more on recreating the feel of their work than being a bullet list of crucial moments in their life.
There was a delightful griminess and grotesque feeling to the film and its visuals that I liked. The atmosphere inside the Jackson-Hyman home felt sweaty, cramped, and gross as it should be. Michael Stuhlbarg found the perfect balance in making the professor charming but also predatory; his simmering envy was always hovering right below the surface, whether directed at Shirley or Fred.
In certain moments Elizabeth Moss feels uneven as Jackson, but she finds the right level of restraint to make the woman a venom-spitting force to be reckoned with. There are other scenes where you can see the acting gears turning, and the performance reveals missteps. I kept thinking how someone like Tilda Swinton or Cate Blanchett would have taken on the role, and I believe Moss for all her talent wasn’t a hundred percent ready for this role. She not terrible, just noticeably off in several moments. There is a terrific moment between Jackson and the Dean’s wife that was my favorite scene in the picture, and I wish we had more of Jackson antagonizing people like that.
I am a big fan of Josephine Decker’s previous work, Madeline’s Madeline. I think her psychological style of filmmaking and dreamlike qualities made that picture perfection. Here, I don’t know if those stylistic choices quite hit correctly. I think the technical aspects of a story like this need to be a bit tauter, not quite as loose narratively as Decker likes to take her work. Production with more precision would have benefited the telling of this story, and I felt the way it is presented left me feeling disconnected emotionally in certain key moments. The hazy veil of reality works when we’re plumbing the depths of Jackson’s psyche and the fracturing of her inner life and what is actually happening around her. Shirley is a pretty decent film, not as great as my expectations, but I am interested in sitting down and digging into her work, which I suspect will be a more satisfying venture.