On the road to Vermont, a young married couple without children (yet) share their excitement for what the future holds for them. Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) was appointed to be an assistant for a renowned Bennington College professor, Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). The couple was expected to live in the professor’s house as temporary guests. It would be a fruitful time for the career of an ambitious guy like Fred. For Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) she would enter into this agreement to fulfill the role of supporting wife. But what about her dreams and ambitions?
In the 1950s, to be a wife and a potential mother didn’t leave enough room for many women to carve their path. Well, tell that to Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), who is not only Hyman’s wife but a famous and celebrated writer, though many concur that she is a person hard to treat. Rose admired Shirley because she had read her work, but she will find soon that there is a long stretch between knowing her stories and getting closer to the person behind them. The results are not always gratifying.
The premise of SHIRLEY instantly reminds to WHO’S AFRAID TO VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966), in which a mature couple with psychotic and intellectual personalities invites another young and naif couple to their home. The worst of each one of them is revealed progressively by the tensions and fights that distinguished one agonizing night. That’s the same spirit of this new movie directed by Josephine Decker– though diluted. The contrast that defines each couple is evident. Despite their private conflicts (Stanley wants that his wife works in her writing more than she rest, Shirley resents the affairs of her husband no matter what agreement they had before), the Hyman-Jackson couple remains partners in crime at the end of the day. You can’t say the same thing about Fred and Rose, who may not be as ready and sure as they think about their life together.
Stuhlbarg is a lifelong “supporting actor” who finally get a breakthrough role as the unforgettable father of CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (Luca Guadagnino, 2017). SHIRLEY represents his first big opportunity after that previous film (three years later!), as a reminder that he is a splendid actor who deserves better. In one of the best scenes of the movie, Stanley commands fiercely and with arrogance a crude lecture about Fred’s work and his persona in a way that makes Nichol’s film a perfect companion piece. A moment like that is brilliant thanks to Stuhlbarg’s performance.
In the case of Elizabeth Moss, we are in the presence of one of the most gifted actors of her generation, which is funny when you think that a large portion of her astounding work is comprised by performances in TV shows (MAD MEN, TOP OF THE LAKE, THE HANDMAID’S TALE). SHIRLEY confirms the momentum that the actress is living right now on the path to conquering the big-screen, released just a few months after delighting audience and critics with THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020). We should take into consideration that Decker’s film was previewed before in the Sundance Festival with good acceptance (it’s a shame that we cannot appreciate it in movie theaters right now). If in THE INVISIBLE MAN, Moss delivered a physically and emotionally exhausting performance, her work in SHIRLEY is most subtle and introspective. Just look at the slight changes in her gaze or the different manifestations of her distinctive smile to understand beforehand what her character feels and thinks even when she didn’t speak.
Sometimes the movie is volatile in its story and uncertain about the subjects Decker wants to explore. Even so, Moss and Stuhlbarg always help to provide a pleasant watching experience whether together or apart on-screen. SHIRLEY is a showcase for two previously underrated actors that starts a new decade of work for them covered now in an aura of hard-won prestige and respectability.
Shirley Jackson was a real-life person, usually celebrated as one of the greatest horror writers. An enigmatic and misanthrope character who preferred life in reclusion entirely devoted to her writing and her family. She is portrayed here as a rude and hostile woman that avoids contact with people or invitations to getting out of her home. In reality, Shirley and Stanley had four children, unlike Decker’s vision of a couple without them. It is a notable choice that establishes instantly the not-so blurred lines between facts and intentional artistic licenses. With a script written by Sarah Gubbins, based on the homonym novel of Susan Scarf Merrell, SHIRLEY feels more like a story in the spirit of a Shirley Jackson tale than a strict biopic about her life. Although focused on a specific time (when she started writing Hangsaman, a novel inspired by the disappearance of a college girl in 1946), everything related to the Nemser marriage is just a device for narrative purposes.
Shirley, as a character, is observed through the eyes of Rose. She finds in this “different” woman a seductive and magnetic personality, awaking in her a desire to call Shirley’s attention. What both women find out is that they are not so different that they thought because there is always secret complicity that only “lost girls” understand, and they grow up to find each other. Decker is interested in the “homoerotic” tensions of this arduously earned female friendship, and also she dares to break it a little and go beyond. However, you can’t categorize it as a lesbian romance. It is less about the sex that it is about the fleeting looks and discreet smiles at the expense of the oppressive men’s world or the sorority against the ostracism of other women (the ones who defend the patriarch world). It is also about the different ways the female experience contains an inscrutable universe rebelling, often silently, against whatever men expect from them.
Decker hasn’t made an insightful movie about Shirley Jackson’s life, and the focus in her work is inconsistent (all the scenes that try to reimagine the telling of Hangsaman are distracting and easily dispensable), but it is fascinating when she gets closer to understand their female characters and the ungrateful world where they live, never friendly for the ones who want to break predetermined molds. Even the solutions (the hermit life chosen by Shirley) come with a burden on their own that men almost never experience. Not less pressing today than it was in 1950.