Director: Josephine Decker
Runtime: 107 minutes
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman
Synopsis: Set in the early 1950s, the film charts an imagined chapter in the life of Shirley Jackson, who has recently become a literary sensation. When her philandering professor husband invites a newlywed couple, Rose and Fred, into their home, the reclusive writer is forced to change her routine, which heightens tensions in their already tempestuous household. This change acts as a catalyst, sparking inspiration for the anxiety-prone writer. As she becomes enamoured with Rose, her unsuspecting new muse, Shirley’s obsession plunges her into a quasi-delirium, awakening a repressed femininity that could inspire her next masterpiece.
Director Josephine Decker [Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014), Madeline’s Madeline (2018), Collective: Unconscious (2016)] takes an imaginative and other-worldly approach to this literary biopic, cleverly juggling biographical details to reveal the mysterious rebellious heart of Jackson’s art. The film received its world premiere earlier this year at Sundance, where it won the US Dramatic Special Jury Award for auteur filmmaking.
With a screenplay by Sarah Gubbins, based upon the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, the film forms a “largely fictional story” around the real life of acclaimed American horror and mystery writer, Shirley Jackson.
The end result is a bewitching psychological drama – a portrait of an artist unravelling. Cleverly blending fiction and reality, Decker’s direction celebrates the rebelliousness of Jackson’s art, as well as the undying power of the female voice in the face of patriarchal, mid-century America.
Shirley Jackson [Elisabeth Moss – Mad Men TV (2007-2015), Hulu TV series The Handmaid’s Tale (2017) , The One I Love (2014), High-Rise (2015), The Square (2017),The Invisible Man (2020)] is on the point of writing her masterpiece when the arrival of newlyweds, Rose and Fred Nemser (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) upends her meticulous routine. Tensions are heightened in her already tempestuous relationship with her philandering husband, literary critic and professor, Stanley Hyman [Michael Stuhlbarg – A Serious Man (2009), Boardwalk Empire (TV 2010-2013), Call Me By Your Name (2017), The Shape of Water (2017)].
Fred and Rose move in with Stanley and Shirley as Fred begins his job at Bennington College, Vermont, where Stanley is a well-established professor. No sooner have they arrived than Stanley asks the pregnant Rose to take over the household chores, as Shirley has become incapacitated by her mental illness and writer’s block.
Shirley becomes obsessed by the story of a young woman who recently disappeared from Bennington’s campus and wants to tell her story as a novel. But the morose natured Shirley and Stanley have a perverse relationship, and soon the pregnant Rose is struggling to adjust to her own married life while living under the roof of her fiery intellectual hosts with their displays of quicksilver loyalties, myriad neuroses, emotional abuse and frequent manipulation.
With the men increasingly absent from the house, Shirley and Rose develop a relationship that blurs boundaries and allows both to challenge the stuffy patriarchal atmosphere of 1950s America.
A genre-defying film with an outstanding ensemble and unforgettable and mesmerising portrayals by Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlberg of a co-dependent, toxic couple living their own domestic horror.
Streaming on Curzon Home Cinema.
Images courtesy of Curzon Artificial Eye