Shirley is your madwoman’s breakfast, a seething mass of dramatic tropes held together by a distinctly 1940s Freudian thriller atmosphere and populated by characters from a hall of mirrors.
Elisabeth Moss plays real-life novelist Shirley Jackson (even Moss is cagey about how close her Shirley is to the original), the febrile, blunt-speaking, possibly clairvoyant novelist living on campus with her bumptious professor husband Stanley, played at full dervish by the ever-superb Michael Stuhlbarg.
Into their lives come young lecturer Fred (Logan Lerman in another vanilla male role) and his wide-eyed newly pregnant wife Rose (Odessa Young, the actual focus of the film), just for a day or so while the new arrivals get settled into to their new lives in this cosy university town.
Circumstances, or possibly Stanley and Shirley, conspire against them, and soon Fred and Rose are living with the prof (specialism: folklore) and his neuraesthenic wife, cooking, cleaning, skivvying – Rose is actually doing the work, since Fred is… well Fred’s a man and it’s the 1950s.
What then plays out starts off by looking like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (nice young couple monstered by a theatrically intense older couple), then morphs into something closer to Rebecca (unstable Rose comes under the influence of the mercurial, Mrs Danvers-alike Shirley).
Or do I mean The Wicker Man (Rose as the lamb led to the pagan slaughter)?
Or even, as the brittle, brilliant Shirley and the pliable, friendly Rose get closer, Thelma and Louise…
Take your pick.
But there’s more. Since the professor lectures in old myths ad folklore and Shirley is writing a book about a female student who went missing some years earlier, in the woods, dressed in a red coat, Red Riding Hood comes to mind, and in particular Angela Carter’s feminist reading of it (which became Neil Jordan’s 1984 film The Company of Wolves).
So we’ve got a pretty awful agoraphobic writer plagued by psychsomatic illnesses and given to Delphic utterances, a pregnant woman appalled and attracted to this monster, an overpowering older husband of aggressive chumminess, a dead girl, possibly also pregnant, references to Freud, mythical drop-ins (were those young women wound in and around a tree meant to be Muses, or Graces?), a soundtrack that breaks into Siren-style discordant harmonies now and again, a camera whose wide lenses are frequently right up in the face of Moss, who responds with a performance of banzai madness, and most of the action taking place in a house bathed in sepulchral gloom.
Histrionic, and then some, if you were on even a small amount of hallucinogens it would probably scare you to death.
Lerman and his character Fred are there to indicate how normal Rose is and how far she’s wandered away from the mean. The overbearing Professor, too, though an interesting character trying to control his wife with a mix of strong booze and manic bluster, is just a sideshow. The film is about the women and an older idea of the female as febrile, emotional, given to the vapours, in touch with the mystical, given to hysteria.
Confident post-feminist genre pastiche, a mirror held to the past, no further comment being necessary? A female director, Josephine Decker, writer (Sarah Gubbins adapting Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel), composer (Tamar-kali), production designer (Sue Chan), art director (Kirby Feagan) and a clutch of female producers would suggest so.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020