When the actor Elisabeth Moss appears on screen, it's often as a character to be reckoned with. In this atmospheric, convoluted psychological drama about the life of American horror and gothic fiction writer, Shirley Jackson, it is no different.
In big hair, owlish spectacles and the worst mid-20th century ladies' fashion, Moss looks just like the images online of the reclusive woman who became a nationally acclaimed writer, best known for creepy mysteries with high impact.
This film, part biopic and part gothic mystery, is set just after Jackson's short story, The Lottery, was published to acclaim in the New Yorker. In the early 1950s, she was at the start of her career.
It is also early in her marriage to literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg is great in the role), but she is already struggling with her demons.
The screenplay by Sarah Gubbins is based on a recent thriller written by Susan Scarf Merrell. Shirley: A Novel takes place over a few months, at home with the writer and her critic husband while a couple is staying.
The young couple is of course a device to reveal the intimate workings of their hosts' marriage and to explore the writerly imagination. At the time, Jackson is developing a second novel that is based on the mysterious disappearance of a young woman in the area. Her second novel, Hangsaman, about a young woman who disappeared from a liberal arts college in Vermont, appeared in 1951.
When Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) and his wife arrive in the college town of North Bennington, Stanley invites them to stay awhile in exchange for help around the house. Stanley is supervising Fred's PhD.
Shirley and Stanley like to show off their bohemian tendencies, mocking the idea of a clean and tidy house, "a sign of mental inferiority", when the mind should be occupied with higher things, but it's okay if someone else does it for them. Moreover, despite her recent literary success, Shirley is letting herself go in a haze of booze and cigarettes, and showing signs of agoraphobia that plagued her later in life.
Director Josephine Decker's moody, intimate and elusive style would work perfectly in one of the stories that Shirley Jackson wrote herself.
The deal that Stanley and Fred cut is a dud for Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) but, good faculty wife that she is, she acquiesces to what will help advance her husband's career. Besides, a baby is on the way.
And yet, Rose is no pushover. Australian actor Young brings depth to her role as a young married woman confronted with the inequality of women at the time, and she gives a stand-out performance.
On better days when the inspiration flows, Shirley spends the afternoon tap-tapping at the typewriter, and makes for a spikey companion at the dinner table with husband and house guests. On other days, she can't seem to get herself out of bed. The writer's waspish character, an amalgam of Edward Albee's Virginia Woolf and a Bette Davis super bitch, loves to play bait the guest, especially one as pretty and vulnerable as Rose. It doesn't help that husband Stanley, a flagrant womaniser, fancies her either.
Thrown together by day, the two women, bored housewives both, in time begin to bond. Rose becomes fascinated with 'Paula', the young local woman whose disappearance is the inspiration for Shirley's new project and the film begins to take an interesting and unfathomable turn, as the younger actor steals the show.
Since Peggy Olson emerged from her shell in Mad Men, Moss has been everywhere, especially since the deeply alarming television series, The Handmaid's Tale. To my way of thinking, however, it's Rose who becomes the story here. Young is on screen for a similar amount of time as Moss but the ambiguity of the character she portrays, struggling with women's issues before the second wave of feminism articulated them, is the most compelling.
With eerie atmospherics, complete with incidental notes from a few string instruments, it feels like we are right there in the frame too, alongside the rest of Shirley Jackson's inner circle.
Director Josephine Decker's moody, intimate and elusive style would work perfectly in one of the stories that Shirley Jackson wrote herself. Shirley is a compelling snapshot of an intriguing author's troubled life. It surely wasn't intended that the fictional support character of Rose would take over, but I believe she has.