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Shirley
 
by Rob Gonsalves

"Not your average biopic."
4 stars

The stories of Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) are enjoying a bit of a fresh wash and airing out lately, what with recent treatments of 'The Haunting of Hill House,' 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle,' and (on deck) “The Lottery.” So it’s not surprising that the experimental/instinctive filmmaker Josephine Decker ('Madeline’s Madeline') got the go-ahead to make a movie about Jackson.

Given Decker’s involvement, it also shouldn’t be surprising that the result, Shirley, turns out to be an elliptical riff on the themes that Jackson’s life and work open up; it’s far from a standard biopic. Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins, adapting a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, approach Jackson as an avatar of misunderstood, squelched female creativity at a time that didn’t value or encourage it. (Trying to square the film’s hazy timeline with the real events isn’t useful; we’ll say the film is set in the early ‘50s.)

Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) is beating her head against an inchoate novel she’s trying to find her way into writing, which eventually became 1951’s Hangsaman, loosely based on the disappearance of a local college girl. At first, the anguished Moss as the depressed, blocked Shirley seems like typecasting, and I wished anew that Moss weren’t shaping up to be the next Christian Bale, miserable and self-crucifying forever. But Moss finds pockets of wit and even giddy pixellated fun in Shirley’s antisocial moods and games. (The agoraphobic Jackson had no problem with social distancing.) Moss’s Shirley has a kind of mischievous though maliceless curiosity about the world around her. Much of it she sees through the prism of men’s betrayal of women and all its forms — her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman (a twinkly caricature of ebullient mansplaining by Michael Stuhlbarg), beds down with legions of his female students.

Into this miasma of spoken and unspoken psychic violence drift a fictional couple — Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young). Fred will be interning with Professor Hyman, and Rose will be doing some cooking and cleaning, because Stanley and Shirley don’t. Shirley and the pregnant Rose develop a complicated rapport based on shared feelings of being overlooked, underestimated, vilified. (The movie reminds us that Jackson’s famous story “The Lottery” sparked as much loathing as love; the script unfolds sometime after the heated response has more or less flattened and blocked Jackson.) The unknown fate of the missing Paula Jean Welden haunts Shirley — she recognizes that she, too, is lost, and she has visions of Rose as Paula enacting self-abnegating psychodramas, literally squirming in the soil. Paula/Rose/Shirley become a triptych of fear of female erasure. Through all this, Decker’s filmmaking is quiet, diffuse, questioning yet assured. The camera floats between the characters, gets up close, breathes along with them. The film toys with the idea of a tryst between Rose and Shirley, then withdraws it. Sex is too physical for what’s really going on here, a sort of meditation on the female oversoul in the ‘50s.

I told you this wasn’t a typical biopic. And some of it plays better in memory than it may when you watch it — a few of the scenes are awkward bordering on cringeworthy, not out of ineptitude but by design. Decker wants us to feel what her characters feel, and a lot of the conflict has to do with the manners and mores of the day. Moss and Stuhlbarg dig into each other’s soft spots so masterfully it’s sometimes easy to forget Odessa Young and especially Logan Lerman are even there. But the movie isn’t really about the male-female war. What Decker (and Jackson before her) understand is that women’s inner lives could be dark and twisted (sometimes beautifully so) even without men. Add the creative urge to that mix and the test tube might explode in your hand. Despite its egghead premise and milieu, Shirley isn’t a hostile art object. Unexpected warm breezes of intimacy waft through it.

At heart it’s a fantasy about a crank, misanthrope and artist who crosses paths with a muse and sees her artistic life project laid out before her. It tells her to speak for the haunted and silent.

link directly to this review at http://ctfqcd.com/review.php?movie=33570&reviewer=416
originally posted: 06/09/20 05:46:12
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