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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

Shirley (M) - 107 minutes

If you are looking for a straightforward, readily understandable narrative, then Shirley may not be the movie for you.

Instead, it is a left of centre, slow burn, dramatic thriller with a series of “look at me" performances and an arresting score.

We're in small town Vermont in the USA in the middle of the 1900s.

Shirley concerns a brilliant, intuitive, evocative horror writer – Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss – The Invisible Man) – who is decidedly paranoid and her equally self-absorbed, feted university professor husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg – The Post).

Her illness manifests itself in her bizarre behaviour, which includes being sullen, angry (she frequently throws stuff), lack of social mores and deep fear of leaving home.

Shirley doesn’t take kindly to company.

She is particularly unwelcoming and unpleasant to a young woman, Rose Nemser (Odessa Young – Celeste), who arrives with her husband, Fred (Logan Lerman – Fury).

Fred – also an academic who has completed his dissertation after years of work and is looking for tenure – and his wife intend to stay with this odd academic couple for only a few days while they arrange for a place of their own.

Shirley – who seems obsessed with death – immediately senses that Rose is pregnant and gives her reasons for concern.

The professor, meanwhile, prevails upon the couple to stay longer and for Rose to look after the housekeeping – which Shirley is incapable of doing – in return for room and board.

Shirley’s latest obsession is writing a book – something the Prof doesn’t feel she is up to – about the disappearance (and presumed death) of a female college student, Paula Jean Welden.

While Shirley’s incessantly aberrant behaviour remains a mainstay, Rose is intrigued by her and with Fred’s long hours away from home forms a bond with her.

The question remains whether Rose can really trust Shirley.

Further, what Stanley’s intent with Fred is, when – for all intents – he is playing him.

The mood throughout is one of disruption and unease.

Dream sequences, reading into the life and times of the college student who has gone missing and Rose taking on her persona are all part of the journey.

Moss does a fine job playing seriously deranged, as much through her withering looks as by virtue of the spoken word.

Stuhlbarg makes quite the impression as her boisterous, manipulative husband who sees himself as better and more gifted than others.

Arguably the hardest role to play is that of the naive young, pregnant wife who gradually becomes ensnared in Shirley’s bizarre life.

Young makes that persona plausible. She plays vulnerable and captivated with aplomb.

As Shirley the movie relies heavily on atmospherics, composer Tamar-Kali has undoubtedly added to the sense of dread with her expressive music.

The sets, settings and cinematography (the latter by Starla Brandth Grøvlen) add to the frenzied appeal.

Still, the obtuse nature of the script by Sarah Gubbins, based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, and direction from Josephine Decker, will undoubtedly frustrate many.

Others, like me, though, will appreciate the creativity involved in crafting this troubling portrait of a woman on the edge.

Rated M, Shirley scores a 7½ out of 10.


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