Director: Josephine Decker
Movies about writers…they seldom work. But the good ones absolutely nail it. I think it’s because movies about writers need to be ‘small movies’ – and Hollywood likes to go large, so many of the films about legendary literary figures have overestimated the interest of the non-literary crowd. Or they’ve misrepresented the artist at the centre. It’s hard to put an emphasis on the word too – since we technically can’t ‘see’ the work, even in this visual medium. They’re a frustrating sub-genre of the biopic.
But Shirley (ostensibly about the American writer Shirley Jackson) succeeds – perhaps particularly because it is not actually a biopic. Based on a novel, which imagines the life of Jackson and her husband through the lens of a visiting couple, this is a sort of meta-fiction really; we get a Hollywood-ised version of Jackson (Elizabeth Moss, almost purpose-built for this role – though that’s arguably true of almost anything she touches) but her work is out there in Hollywood being adapted, getting remade, her most famous short story, The Lottery, has been adapted as a graphic novel and continues to reappear in New Yorker archival digs. We Have Always Lived In The Castle and The Haunting of Hill House are, respectively, a new film and a TV series. So it’s more important for us to want to know about the writer than the work – the work is still out there. And it’s actually irrelevant whether you know the work or not.
Jackson’s version of horror was existential ultimately. Yes, there were ghosts and haunted houses but her stories and books are filled with claustrophobia, strange sexual tension, agoraphobic concerns too. She was a person uncomfortable in her skin. Manipulative, miserable and possibly, somehow at her happiest when pulling others down into that misery.
In the film we meet a young academic couple that sheer the house with Jackson and her husband. The men go to work – at the university. The women are left home to clean and tidy. The sexual tension simmers. The creepiness seeps in. It’s wonderfully controlled.
Jackson, through Moss, is wonderfully unpredictable – she eats up the screen but we have no idea what the character is going to do. She has a drink in her hand most of the time and a head full of fog. It’s a recipe for…well, someone’s disaster. And Moss revels in selling this hard. But never ever over-egging the omelette. In a career of intense and subtly dazzling work she might never have been finer than right here.
Shirley is a weird film. A small film. A perfectly imperfect film. Its horror is strange, gothic and straight from the pages of, well, a Shirley Jackson-styled story. Except it never was. It was only taken from the pages of a Shirley Jackson-referencing story.