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Film review: Strange exploration of a tortured writer

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Review: Shirley charts an imagined chapter in the life of Shirley Jackson

Based on the mysterious real-life figure of famed American horror writer Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), American auteur Josephine Decker’s fourth feature film tells a largely fictionalised tale, focusing on Jackson and her husband’s relationship and how they co-exist with a young couple who come to stay with them in their university campus home.

I was unfamiliar with both Jackson and Decker’s work before seeing Shirley and maybe that marred my enjoyment of the film’s content. Although it’s a stylish and pretty picture to behold, a predictable plot and a pretentious aura can’t help but haunt this strange exploration of a tortured artist.

Elisabeth Moss stars in the titular role and is comfortably magnificent as she usually is performing. She is very capable of inhabiting Jackson’s wounded pride and eccentricity, perhaps most powerfully during the film’s final frames.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays her husband Stanley and is successfully dislikeable as the charming creep, secretly jealous of his wife’s talent. Their relationship is a strange one and although it is often enigmatic, the scenes the two have together are often the best.

The pair play constant mind games with their young boarders, Fred and Rosie Nemser. Jackson takes Rosie (Odessa Young) under her wing, using the torment she puts her through to fuel her own creative juices as she writes a new novel.

The relationship between Fred and Rosie is quite the typical one, which we see often throughout films. The young couple are introduced to us as thriving and truly in love, but the introduction of Shirley and Stanley brings stresses into their new marriage.

The overly-long plot meandered to an inevitable conclusion and although it explored interesting themes along the way, it offered nothing new to entice much interest. Decker’s feminist leanings are clear and the way she explores female domestic entrapment through Shirley and Rosie’s relationship is intriguing, but she fails to conjure anything fresh and exciting.

The film begins to play with horror and thriller tropes, taking obvious influence from Jackson’s literary work, but never fully leans into it, something I would’ve liked to see.

Although the plot wasn’t the best, many of the film’s technical aspects are superb. The cinematography is intimate and discomforting, and it’s paired with a truly fascinating soundtrack. The massive variety of sounds employed create some magical and strange atmospheres, which the characters make all the more hostile and alien, despite the seemingly
pleasant façade they present.

Shirley is an intriguing film to listen to and look at and although Jackson and her husband are well-acted and
interesting characters, they are contained within a relatively bland yet strange plot that just never really got going, despite its intriguing beginnings.

Fans of Decker and Jackson may be pleased, but it’s not quite the dark and thrilling horror-infused drama that the trailers lead us to believe.

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