I’m probably the least qualified person to write a review of director Josephine Decker’s “Shirley,” a biographical drama about renowned horror and mystery author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), which debuts on Hulu and VOD Friday, June 5.
I’ve never read any of Jackson’s work. I’ve seen both versions of “The Haunting” (1963 and 1999), but haven’t watched a single episode of Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House.” I haven’t seen any of Decker’s other movies, but have heard good things about “Madeline’s Madeline.” I haven’t read Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same name upon which the film is based. I know Moss more from her movie roles (“The Invisible Man,” “The Kitchen,” “Us”) than I do her highly acclaimed television turns (“Top of the Lake” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”). I’ve only seen one episode of “Mad Men” – Jared Harris whooped Vincent Kartheiser’s ass on it.
It’s the early 1950s in North Bennington, Vt. Fred (Logan Lerman, late of Amazon Prime’s “Hunters”) and Rose (Odessa Young, “Assassination Nation”) are a pair of newlyweds who are staying with Professor Stanley Hyman (ace character actor Michael Stuhlbarg) and his wife, the titular Shirley. Fred is working as an assistant to Stanley at Bennington College in hopes of securing a tenured position. Meanwhile Rose is roped into indentured servitude in Stanley and Shirley’s home working as maid, housekeeper and cook despite being with child.
Stanley and Shirley are horrible people. Stanley is a pretentious philanderer looking to squash his protégé’s aspirations. Shirley is an agoraphobic with a penchant for insults. Sitting down for the first meal Rose has prepared, Shirley calls her a slut and makes assertions about she and Fred having had a shotgun wedding. In spite of this, the two women strike up an unlikely friendship … possibly due to a lack of other options.
Much of the movie’s acclaim has been heaped upon Moss and her performance. She’s good as she reliably is per my limited sample size. This lady plays mania exceedingly well. The performance that most impressed me however was that of Young. She’s the actual lead of the movie and undergoes the greatest change. Young was impressive in “Assassination Nation,” one of my favorite films of 2018. She’s even better holding her own here against acting heavyweights such as Moss and Stuhlbarg. Speaking of Stuhlbarg, he’s deliciously douche-y as Stanley. I wanted to bust his Hyman in the face. He’s like the evil flip side of Stuhlbarg’s “Call Me by Your Name” role. Lerman isn’t given nearly as much to chew on, but you see the beginnings of academicians’ and husbands’ worst traits in his performance.
“Shirley” connected with me … more on an intellectual level as opposed to an emotional one. It’s fascinating and well-made. I ignorantly expected “Shirley” to have more of a horror bent to it, while it’s actually more of a domestic drama. In the end, it’s a portrait of two couples who ultimately interestingly mirror one another.