“Shirley” — a film review by Gary Chew
Charlotte Brontë’s novel that followed “Jane Eyre” in the mid 19th century was popular enough, at the time, to cause a gender shift insofar as the name “Shirley” is concerned. Under the epicine name of Currer Bell, Charlotte titled her book that came after “Jane Eyre,” “Shirley: A Tale.” Up until then, the name “Shirley” was what parents bestowed on a male child. I have a cousin named “Shirley” and a male she is not. So, there you go.
This is a convoluted way of getting to the review a motion picture now is current release that is merely titled “Shirley.” But it’s a bio-pic about another successful and more contemporary female author by the name of Shirley Jackson: best known, among other works, for her chilling novel “The Haunting of Hill House.” Many say the movie made from that terrifying Jackson tome is the best horror film ever. “The Haunting” (1963), was directed by Robert Wise and starred Julie Harris and Claire Bloom.
A changing relationship between two woman is the focus of director Josephine Decker’s “Shirley.” Elizabeth Moss is Shirley and Odessa Young is Rose, a younger female who’s come with her fiancé, Fred (Logan Lerman), to stay a short while with Shirley and her husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg). The young couple is shopping for Fred being tenured at the college where Stanley is a professor. Rose and Fred are looking for an apartment and Stanley has graciously offered them his and Shirley’s home till they can get their own place.
Shirley, you’ll soon perceive, is anything but gracious. She’s pretty much and rather a bitch, but quite an interesting one: a talented author of popular books of horror. Stanley is a vivacious and, dare I say, lascivious lecturer who is an obvious philanderer. The married couple is distantly reminiscent of Liz and Dick when they played Martha and George in Mike Nichols’ picture of the Edward Albee play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that both Shirley and Stanley are magnificent game players… with Rose and Fred… and each other. The slow but inexorably mounting influence Shirley has over Rose’s personality can be frightening. Such a power trip for Shirley… and Stanley always on the lookout for any signal from Rose that he might, as they say, have his way with her. Poor Fred. He’s just wanting to get Stanley to laud over his dissertation and grease the skids for Fred getting a tenured gig. The great Edward Albee might… if he could now… cry, “foul,” but much more
Decker’s natural lighting and montage-like moments, collapsed in brilliant editing and dissolves, give the film more forward motion than you might imagine. Music is supplied sparingly, but with just the right amount of scratchy string playing to keep the edge on. Sound effects are stage-like. When an actor is flailing about something commanding her or him to do in the script, you actually hear the loud footfalls of their tromping about the room. I was using earpieces for this screening, so I had a close up appreciation of ambient noise.
Shirley is writing what she thinks is her best novel as the film proceeds. Stanley is goading her on and willing to give her notes at any turn, while Rose is unknowingly the guiding muse for what happens to “Paula,” the girl who goes missing in the yet untitled work trying to get on the page and out of the dark, disturbed mind of Shirley Jackson.
All of this boils down to a “don’t-breathe-a-word” spot near the ending that invites one to think, ah, this is how it all ends: Shirley’s novel and Decker’s movie. I will not give away anything on that, except to say: however Ms. Jackson ends her novel has got to be a bit more exciting than how Decker finishes her motion picture. On the other hand, I wouldn’t miss out on watching “Shirley” again… especially with other people who are as excited to see it the first time as I was. “Shirley” is available, for a modest fee, to see on Neon.
Where have all the wide screens gone? Gone to online, everyone.