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Film Data
Shirley  2020
Director:  Josephine Decker
Producer:
  Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Sue Naegle, Sarah Gubbins, Jeffrey Soros, Simon Horsman and Elisabeth Moss
Art Director:
  Kirby Feagan
Editor:
  David Barker
Music:
  Tamar-kali
Screenplay:
  Sarah Gubbins, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell
Director of Photography:
  Sturla Brandth Grøvlen
slideshow
Cast:
spacer1 Elisabeth Moss
spacer1 Michael Stuhlbarg
spacer1 Odessa Young
people1 Logan Lerman
spacer1 Victoria Pendretti
spacer1 Robert Whul
spacer1 Orlangh Cassidy
spacer1 Paul O’Brien
spacer1 Allen McCullough
spacer1 Edward O’Blenis
spacer1 Bisserat Tseggai
spacer1 Molly Elizabeth Fahey
spacer1 Elisabeth Moss spacer1 Michael Stuhlbarg spacer1 Odessa Young
people1 Logan Lerman spacer1 Victoria Pendretti spacer1 Robert Whul
spacer1 Orlangh Cassidy spacer1 Paul O’Brien spacer1 Allen McCullough
spacer1 Edward O’Blenis spacer1 Bisserat Tseggai spacer1 Molly Elizabeth Fahey
spacer1 Elisabeth Moss spacer1 Michael Stuhlbarg
spacer1 Odessa Young people1 Logan Lerman
spacer1 Victoria Pendretti spacer1 Robert Whul
spacer1 Orlangh Cassidy spacer1 Paul O’Brien
spacer1 Allen McCullough spacer1 Edward O’Blenis
spacer1 Bisserat Tseggai spacer1 Molly Elizabeth Fahey

Synopsis:

Shirley Jackson was a rightly acclaimed novelist and story writer, responsible for such novels as The Haunting Of Hill House(’59), justifiably regarded as a horror masterpiece, and We Have Always Lived In The Castle(’62), and the famous short story The Lottery(’48), rightly seen as an almost perfect example of the form. Her private life was tumultuous, living with her husband, Stanley Hyman, a college professor infamous for his flagrant and frequent adultery, and her chain smoking, along with a number of other health problems, would lead to her early death at the age of only 48.

Having said that, the Shirley Jackson portrayed by Elizabeth Moss (The Invisible Man / TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale) in Josephine Decker’s Shirley, is not that person, the script being based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same name, which weaves a completely fictitious story around the pair, setting it at a very specific time in Jackson’s life, while she was writing what would become her second novel, Hangsaman, published in 1951, and creating such a distressing portrayal of the couple, depicting them as alcoholic, manipulative sadists, with Shirley being shown to be a lesbian, a heartless manipulator of the vulnerable and a possible murderer (none of which were true), that Lawrence Jackson Hyman, her eldest son, has come out vehemently against both the novel and the film, saying ‘If someone comes to the movie not knowing anything about my parents, they will certainly leave thinking my mother was a crazy alcoholic and my father was a mean critic’.

,

If one can ignore Decker’s gross fabrications, regarding this as much as a work of fiction that Jackson herself created, the pic features three absolutely superb performances, from Moss, making this Shirley Jackson a cold-hearted, sharp-tongued, calculated schemer, as well as in certain shots being a dead ringer for the actual writer, and Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man / The Post), as husband Stanley, a Rabalasian, Bacchanalian flamboyant charmer, who isn’t above cheerfully groping the naive Rose (Australian actress Odessa Young - Assassination Nation / TV’s Tokyo Vice), one of the married couple, along with her new husband, Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman - the Percy Jackson films / Fury), who have come to the town of Bennington for Fred to teach at the college where Stanley is a Professor, the newlyweds staying with the pair and soon finding themselves their benefactor’s lackeys, Rose cooking and cleaning for them, Stanley always keeping the eager-to-please Fred on the hook with the promise of advancement in the college with his patronage, and Shirley seeing in Rose someone between a friend, a confident and a plaything. A young student has gone missing from the college and there is suspicion on the campus that the girl has been murdered, and Shirley very quickly manages to persuade Rose, in a scene which stretches credulity to the very limit, to go to the girl’s doctor in order to steal her medical records when the nurse isn’t looking, Shirley then trying to deduce the solution to the case from the doctor’s notes. But then the disappearance thread disappears from the story, until the finale, as do several other story arcs. Nothing is dwelt on for too long before moving onto another aspect of the story. What seems to be a genuine, hate-filled drink-fuelled argument, one of many, which threats the Hyman’s marriage quickly blows over; Shirley’s exposure of her knowledge of Stanley’s affair with a school official, something which could finally end his career, is again raised and disposed of. A scene of what appears to be a lesbian seduction attempt, we say ‘appears to be’ since it is so odd and bizarre that one isn’t entirely sure what’s going on, until the idea is emphasised a couple of minutes later and then, as quickly as it arrived it is dispensed with, and a sudden volte-face in the ninetieth minute or so is so cold and ruthless it completely changes how one regards the central character.

But it is the inventions made to benefit the novel and film which are so glaring. In the time frame of the pic the actual Shirley Jackson had already three of her eventual four children, yet here there are none to be seen, and Shirley has an unpleasant, leering fascination with Rose’s own pregnancy, and while Lawrence Jackson Hyman admits that his parents drank, he insists not to the extent they do here, rarely being seen without a large glass of scotch or a cocktail, with Stanley warning the young couple about his wife’s drinking, very much a case of Professor heal thyself.

There are a couple of striking scenes, such as Shirley marooned on a sofa during a faculty party, being ignored by the rest of the guests and looking completely out of place, and her struggles as she tries to shape her new piece of work, are convincing.

In the middle of all this are three compelling performances. Moss is entirely convincing as this complex, if largely invented, monster, a highly intelligent woman but who seems to want to lash out at anybody who gets near enough, while Stuhlbarg makes Stanley equally compelling, playing the sort of predatory college lecturer who these days would be thrown off campus tout suite, and given the age of some of his victims probably jailed, with Odessa Young being their perfect victim, an innocent young women who becomes something rather more wary and worldly under the older couple’s influence. Logan Lerman as Fred is given the least rewarding role of the four leads, spending most of this time in the lecture hall and away from the far from happy familial home. The final scene of Shirley and Stanley happily dancing, the most joyful they have been though the entire film, seemingly having achieved what they were planning, just underlines how the film depicts them as vicious emotional sadists.

Shirley works best when Moss is making herself the centre of attention, and there is an edgy, unsettling chemistry between the characters of Shirley, Stanley and Rose, aided by the very committed, intense performances of the leads.

Review:

Shirley Jackson was a rightly acclaimed novelist and story writer, responsible for such novels as The Haunting Of Hill House(’59), justifiably regarded as a horror masterpiece, and We Have Always Lived In The Castle(’62), and the famous short story The Lottery(’48), rightly seen as an almost perfect example of the form. Her private life was tumultuous, living with her husband, Stanley Hyman, a college professor infamous for his flagrant and frequent adultery, and her chain smoking, along with a number of other health problems, would lead to her early death at the age of only 48.

Having said that, the Shirley Jackson portrayed by Elizabeth Moss (The Invisible Man / TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale) in Josephine Decker’s Shirley, is not that person, the script being based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same name, which weaves a completely fictitious story around the pair, setting it at a very specific time in Jackson’s life, while she was writing what would become her second novel, Hangsaman, published in 1951, and creating such a distressing portrayal of the couple, depicting them as alcoholic, manipulative sadists, with Shirley being shown to be a lesbian, a heartless manipulator of the vulnerable and a possible murderer (none of which were true), that Lawrence Jackson Hyman, her eldest son, has come out vehemently against both the novel and the film, saying ‘If someone comes to the movie not knowing anything about my parents, they will certainly leave thinking my mother was a crazy alcoholic and my father was a mean critic’.

,

If one can ignore Decker’s gross fabrications, regarding this as much as a work of fiction that Jackson herself created, the pic features three absolutely superb performances, from Moss, making this Shirley Jackson a cold-hearted, sharp-tongued, calculated schemer, as well as in certain shots being a dead ringer for the actual writer, and Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man / The Post), as husband Stanley, a Rabalasian, Bacchanalian flamboyant charmer, who isn’t above cheerfully groping the naive Rose (Australian actress Odessa Young - Assassination Nation / TV’s Tokyo Vice), one of the married couple, along with her new husband, Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman - the Percy Jackson films / Fury), who have come to the town of Bennington for Fred to teach at the college where Stanley is a Professor, the newlyweds staying with the pair and soon finding themselves their benefactor’s lackeys, Rose cooking and cleaning for them, Stanley always keeping the eager-to-please Fred on the hook with the promise of advancement in the college with his patronage, and Shirley seeing in Rose someone between a friend, a confident and a plaything. A young student has gone missing from the college and there is suspicion on the campus that the girl has been murdered, and Shirley very quickly manages to persuade Rose, in a scene which stretches credulity to the very limit, to go to the girl’s doctor in order to steal her medical records when the nurse isn’t looking, Shirley then trying to deduce the solution to the case from the doctor’s notes. But then the disappearance thread disappears from the story, until the finale, as do several other story arcs. Nothing is dwelt on for too long before moving onto another aspect of the story. What seems to be a genuine, hate-filled drink-fuelled argument, one of many, which threats the Hyman’s marriage quickly blows over; Shirley’s exposure of her knowledge of Stanley’s affair with a school official, something which could finally end his career, is again raised and disposed of. A scene of what appears to be a lesbian seduction attempt, we say ‘appears to be’ since it is so odd and bizarre that one isn’t entirely sure what’s going on, until the idea is emphasised a couple of minutes later and then, as quickly as it arrived it is dispensed with, and a sudden volte-face in the ninetieth minute or so is so cold and ruthless it completely changes how one regards the central character.

But it is the inventions made to benefit the novel and film which are so glaring. In the time frame of the pic the actual Shirley Jackson had already three of her eventual four children, yet here there are none to be seen, and Shirley has an unpleasant, leering fascination with Rose’s own pregnancy, and while Lawrence Jackson Hyman admits that his parents drank, he insists not to the extent they do here, rarely being seen without a large glass of scotch or a cocktail, with Stanley warning the young couple about his wife’s drinking, very much a case of Professor heal thyself.

There are a couple of striking scenes, such as Shirley marooned on a sofa during a faculty party, being ignored by the rest of the guests and looking completely out of place, and her struggles as she tries to shape her new piece of work, are convincing.

In the middle of all this are three compelling performances. Moss is entirely convincing as this complex, if largely invented, monster, a highly intelligent woman but who seems to want to lash out at anybody who gets near enough, while Stuhlbarg makes Stanley equally compelling, playing the sort of predatory college lecturer who these days would be thrown off campus tout suite, and given the age of some of his victims probably jailed, with Odessa Young being their perfect victim, an innocent young women who becomes something rather more wary and worldly under the older couple’s influence. Logan Lerman as Fred is given the least rewarding role of the four leads, spending most of this time in the lecture hall and away from the far from happy familial home. The final scene of Shirley and Stanley happily dancing, the most joyful they have been though the entire film, seemingly having achieved what they were planning, just underlines how the film depicts them as vicious emotional sadists.

Shirley works best when Moss is making herself the centre of attention, and there is an edgy, unsettling chemistry between the characters of Shirley, Stanley and Rose, aided by the very committed, intense performances of the leads.

disc test

DVD
DVD retail information
sleeve DVD
BBFC: 15
Studio: Curzon Artificial Eye
Audio:
Aspect ratio:
Barcode: 5021866914305
Languages: English
Subtitles: English
Available: 04 Jan 2021
disc price calulation Price: £12.99
Blu-ray
Blu-ray retail information
sleeve Blu-ray 
BBFC: 15
Studio: Curzon Artificial Eye
Audio:
Aspect ratio:
Barcode: 5021866272405
Languages: English
Subtitles: English
Available: 04 Jan 2021
disc price calulation Price: £14.99