Shirley review – Elisabeth Moss gets under a horror writer's skin | Peter Bradshaw's film of the week

Moss bristles with malevolence as a fictionalised version of Shirley Jackson but the film’s early menace fizzles out

If you can imagine that nice young couple Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes from Rosemary’s Baby showing up at the house belonging to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and staying as house guests until their baby is born … well, you still won’t have much of an idea as to what this intriguing, frustrating film is like. It is acted with bravura and the sort of stormy histrionics and whisky hangovers enjoyed by 60s American campus couples indulging in drunken dinner parties and sneaky infidelities. And it’s directed to create a humidly intense atmosphere of emotional abuse as the women involved plunge obsessively down their various rabbit holes of self-discovery and self-harm to the orchestral accompaniment of atonal pizzicato and jarring piano chords.

It’s a process comparable to the one director Josephine Decker explored in her previous film, Madeline’s Madeline. But this film finally flinches from its own menacing implications and dark suspenseful power with a rather feeble ending of empowerment and solidarity. A very 21st-century loss of nerve.

Screenwriter Sarah Gubbins has adapted Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same title, and “Shirley” is a fictionalised version of the real-life horror author Shirley Jackson, whose reputation was made in 1948 by her sensational New Yorker story The Lottery, a satirical nightmare of small-town America. This new Shirley is played by Elisabeth Moss, all frumpy dresses and Gary Larson glasses, borderline agoraphobic, creatively blocked and morosely unwilling to discuss her work with the tiresome, starry-eyed fans and students who show up at the house where she lives with her pompous, excitable husband, the academic critic Stanley Hyman (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) who has tenure at Bennington College in Vermont, then a women-only institution.

Stewing in a stagnant pool of their own boredom and irritability, the pair are rejuvenated when a young couple come to stay: Fred (Logan Lerman) is a supercilious junior professor hoping for tenure-track career help from Hyman, and his beautiful, pregnant young wife Rose (Odessa Young) who is obscurely excited and disturbed by Shirley’s work and by this new personal acquaintance with the bad-tempered genius herself.

But Stanley and Shirley, that pair of emotional vampire squids, set out to suck the life out of the youngsters. Stanley clearly wants to ruin young Fred’s career to assert his own alpha dominance, and Shirley wants to befriend Rose parasitically, using her as a psychological crash test dummy for the new novel she’s writing, speculating about the inner life of a young Bennington student who has recently disappeared.

Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss
Emotional vampire squids … Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss as Stanley and Shirley Photograph: Publicity image

This film has come in for some criticism for making Shirley childless – in real life, and in the original novel, she had four children. This is presumably to free up Shirley for her fictional destiny as witch/nerd, disencumbered of anything as banal as kids. And there is something naive in not showing how this great writer in reality had to do her work along with the childcare – childcare that husbands were of course not expected to do. But the more immediate problem is the way the film teasingly hints at something deliciously dark and destructive from both Stanley and Shirley. It hints at the way writers can use up real people as raw material. It also, incidentally, holds out the possibility that we might find out what happened to that missing woman. But we’re heading for something more gooey and emollient.

There are richly satisfying performances from Moss and Stuhlbarg, though. Moss’s Shirley is cantankerous and contemptuous, especially when she decides to break her agoraphobe purdah and show up at the dean’s annual party where she is inevitably rude and horrible. Stuhlbarg is hilarious as the insufferable Hyman, a man who clearly thinks he is the exuberant bohemian, a Fezziwig of middlebrow academe. We first see him capering about at a party where he appears to be dressed as Bacchus. But he is a mean-minded snipe, pettily convulsed with jealousy at Shirley’s new intimacy with Rose. He is the very opposite of the heroically open-minded professor Stuhlbarg played in Call Me By Your Name, the one who gives that amazing speech to his son, Timothée Chalamet, telling him not to forget or deny his own heartbreak.

Together, Moss and Stuhlbarg epitomise a very horrible masculine and feminine mystique. They are, for a while at any rate, the very emblems of co-dependent wickedness.

• Shirley is in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from 30 October.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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