Monday 22 April 2024

Mubi Monday: Shirley (2020)

While I didn’t hate watching Shirley, a film that is nicely put together around a talented cast who fit well in their roles, I must say that I wasn’t entirely won over by the central conceit, and it made me hanker for the portrayal of Shirley Jackson I enjoyed a bit more in Set Fire To The Stars. That is a bit unfair though, as it isn’t exactly comparing like for like, but I figured I would take a minute to recommend that little gem of a film.

Anyway, this film is based on a book by Susan Scarf Merrell, and it places the famous Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), in the middle of a load of drama, both past and present, that allows others to see the strange and damaging co-dependency locking them together in their relationship. Odessa Young and Logan Lerman play Rose and Fred Nemser, a young couple who end up in the Jackson household, and they unwittingly become the latest distractions for two people who seem to constantly struggle to find ways to occupy themselves (when not being creative, intellectually arrogant, or unfaithful).

Directed well enough by Josephine Decker, who has helmed a number of other films I have enjoyed (and one I just couldn’t stand), this uses the script by Sarah Gubbins to sketch out some characters that are then given the time and space to breathe and play around. Making use of real people in a fictional story is a strange balancing act, but it seems to me that this doesn’t do a bad job of using the main premise to examine the relationship between Shirley and Stanley, as well as looking at how they “played” with others. Some elements may be entirely unnecessary, but they still intertwine nicely with the idea of putting the Jacksons under the glare of a bright spotlight while their dynamic is dissected.

Moss is very good in the title role, as she tends to be in almost everything she does nowadays, and she’s unafraid to play her character in a way that shows her actively repelling people. She’s cold and cool, although occasionally moved by anger, and does well to avoid histrionics and tics. Stuhlbarg plays the less likeable of the two, and he also tackles his role without any hint of concern or softness. Lerman does well in a way that has him being the least memorable of the central quartet, but it’s Young who gets to be the heart of the film, playing the observer who becomes drawn further and further into a large and dangerous web. Constantly drawn to the see the creative spark while trying not to be burned, Young delivers an excellent performance, striking just the right balance of naïveté and strength, that helps her to remain much more significant than she is considered by any of the other main characters.

I just wish we didn’t need the fictional framing device here. It feels like there’s a great film to be made about Shirley Jackson, but this isn’t it. It’s very good, but it’s not great, particularly when it comes to the darker side of her life (her mental health, the dysfunctional marriage, and more). Not one I think I will ever revisit, but I would be interested to hear from others who know a bit more about the real Shirley Jackson, and whether that makes you like this film any more or any less.


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1 comment:

  1. I've read some of her books but like most authors I never really concerned myself with her personal life.