Shirley, directed by Josephine Decker, is a thrilling psychodrama based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell; nominated for the Teddy at this year’s Berlinale it now arrives in the UK at the BFI LFF. Starring Elisabeth Moss in the title role, who also produced, it’s the tale of Shirley Jackson, a renowned horror writer stuck for inspiration for her next novel, and the lengths to which she will go to get it.
The action is set in Bennington College in 1964, all preppy outfits, cute cardigans and sexual liberation. A young couple, the Nemsers, go to stay with Jackson and her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at the college. Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) aspires to a professorship and his wife, Rose (Odessa Young), will study. Meanwhile, a college student, Paula Jean Welden (also played by Odessa Young), has gone missing.
Frequently as I watched this movie, my notes read “Shirley is absolutely batshit crazy”. She’s a much-admired author with a talent for the “thrillingly horrible” but she’s also troubled. She drinks too much and she smokes. She doesn’t keep house. She’s utterly vile to other women, prompted no doubt by her husband’s infidelities. As a transgressor of social and sexual boundaries she is both monstrous and tragic. The best bit of all was discovering that this story is based on real people: Shirley Jackson was indeed a well-respected author of a number of horror and mystery novels, and she died in 1965.
Both Moss and Young give great performances as the three women at the heart of the movie. The sound design and music (by Tamar-kali) adds enjoyable creepiness to the tale: plucked violin strings, sinister piano chords, bells, whistling wind and wailing. Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cinematography is inspired, covering a range of styles from up-close, intense and unsteady in the social scenes; beautifully framed shots of campus buildings; blurry and confused in the woods. My favourites were the murky interior scenes, dimly lit and disorientating, reflections in steamy mirrors and the sense of a watcher somewhere.
Watching the movie reminded me of another brilliant novel about a disappearance on a US campus, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I also remembered sad and shocking events from my own time at university, when a flatmate did not return after the Christmas holiday, murdered by her ex-boyfriend for reasons similar to those speculated on in the movie. So, while it’s fun to enjoy Shirley’s monstrous awfulness it’s also troubling to reflect that younger women often have little power or agency. Doubly disappointing, therefore, to see a woman exploiting these vulnerabilities for the advancement of own career.
Shirley is released on demand and in cinemas in the UK on October 30th. Sinister and with a smattering of folk horror, it’s perfect Halloween viewing. In the US Shirley is available to purchase or rent via Amazon Prime Video.
Available to watch on BFI Player as part of the LFF from Friday October 9th at 6:30pm BST until Monday October 12th at 6:30pm BST. Head to the LFF website for more details and a list of UK-wide screenings.
By Karen Smith