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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Shirley movie review: Elisabeth Moss delivers transfixing performance

Elisabeth Moss starrer Shirley is an unadulterated delight. The Josephine Decker directorial is an adaptation of an eponymous novel by Susan Scarf Merrell.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Written by Kshitij Rawat | New Delhi | Updated: June 10, 2020 8:22:39 am
elisabeth moss shirley review Shirley stars Elisabeth Moss in the lead role. (Photo: Neon)

Shirley movie cast: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman
Shirley movie director: Josephine Decker
Shirley movie rating: 4

Novelist Shirley Jackson’s life and work are a study in fascination. She wrote dark stories that scared the hell out of her readers in a way that is hard to explain. Her stories, whether horror or not, did not have ghosts or anything supernatural — at least not explicitly so.

Through her work, she ruminated on things like isolation (both mental and physical), anxiety, loneliness, repression, humanity’s seemingly unending capacity for violence, and other things that elicit a genuine sense of dread that even Dracula and Pennywise would fail at.

Her genre-defining The Haunting of Hill House is widely considered to be one of the most famous fictional works of the 20th century, earning praise from the master of horror fiction, Stephen King.

Elisabeth Moss shirley Elisabeth Moss is mesmerising as Shirley Jackson in Shirley. (Photo: Neon)

Her life, especially towards the end, was as dark as her creations, and she, likely, channelled the emotions she felt in the real world through her work. Her stories were her creative outlets, perhaps.

Shirley is an adaptation of an eponymous novel by Susan Scarf Merrell about a young couple who move to the house of Jackson and her literary critic husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman. Elisabeth Moss plays the titular role, with Michael Stuhlbarg playing the role of Hyman, and Odessa Young and Logan Lerman as the Nemsers — Rose and Fred, respectively.

While this is a fictional story, the way Jackson’s character is written is remarkably similar to what I had read of her life. Writing novels and short stories is hard. Authors are thus remarkably cantankerous people who suffer from physical and mental illnesses. Shirley was no different. Anxiety and agoraphobia troubled her as well as ailments like chronic asthma, body pain, fainting spells and so on. In addition to all that, she and her husband did not see eye-to-eye due to latter’s illicit liaisons.

The movie, directed by Josephine Decker and written by Sarah Gubbins, has all that I mentioned above, but it is also a nuanced narrative that is not only insightful for Jackson’s fans, but also an entertaining movie in its own right.

Elisabeth Moss has been on a roll of late with her choices of roles and what she brings to them. But I was not prepared for her performance in Shirley. In this movie, Moss becomes Shirley. There is no other way of saying it. She is Shirley. And frankly, she holds this movie together, and it is hard to imagine anybody else filling the shoes of the author in this way.

Her perpetually sardonic smile that she flashes to show how emotionally detached, the pain she is feeling due to her husband’s affairs, her cruel jabs at everybody around her, the hardened, moody disposition that cannot hide her vulnerability and her frustration about writer’s block — Moss nails it all.

Shirley is an unadulterated delight, and it is not a prerequisite for you to have read or even heard about Shirley Jackson. This is a story for everyone.

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