The incandescent Madeline’s Madeline still fresh in our memories, Josephine Decker returns to the screen with Shirley. Starkly different from her previous feature, this biographical portrait of acclaimed horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) nonetheless retains the essence of what makes Decker’s work so striking.

Less of a traditional biopic than a snapshot of a specific time in Jackson’s life, Shirley begins as a four-hander in the tradition of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: in 1964, Shirley and Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) have invited Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) to stay at their house. Here, the Nemsers are supposed to help with both academic and household work – tasks which are distinctly distributed along the gender lines. Tensions ripple through the house as both couples deal with their own internal conflicts, and there is no shortage of day-drinking or barbed comments. 

This marks the first time Decker is not working with her own script, but Sarah Gubbins’ screenplay (based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell) stays true to the central theme of the director’s oeuvre. At the heart of this film lies the complex dynamic between two women, and Shirley is at its most compelling when exploring the multi-faceted relationship between Shirley and Rose. 

A hesitant friendship buds between them after the initial obstacles are overcome, and soon Rose becomes both a confidante and muse to Shirley, assisting with the research for what is to become the writer’s first novel. It’s the elusive feminine touch that helps Shirley overcome her writer’s block and even draws her out of her social phobia – not her husband’s overbearing pestering which is often only thinly disguised as support. 

Shirley unquestionably does its subject justice, both on a personal level and in the wider context of female authorship. It’s an elegant and moody film – including the beautiful impressionistic mood shots which are a second recognizable feature of Decker’s work – even as it deals with serious feminist issues.

RATING: 4/5


INFORMATION

CAST: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman

DIRECTOR: Josephine Decker

WRITERS: Sarah Gubbins (screenplay), Susan Scarf Merrell (novel)

SYNOPSIS: A famous horror writer finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband take in a young couple.

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