Shirley doesn’t wholly come together as it picks Shirley Jackson apart

Josephine Decker’s adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s teasingly fantasy-refracted portrait of the supernatural horror writer piles up the cruelties and betrayals – but does it wrench too much away from the real Shirley Jackson?

30 October 2020

By Hannah McGill

Sight and Sound

Shirley is in UK cinemas and streaming on Curzon Home Cinema from 30 October 2020.

This fictionalised portrait of the American author Shirley Jackson, adapted from the novel Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell, commences with young bride Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) reading Jackson’s short story The Lottery while on a train journey with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman).

There’s a reason for Rose’s interest, beyond the instant notoriety the story has acquired since its publication in the New Yorker in 1948. The couple are on their way to North Bennington, Vermont, where Fred will take up a teaching post alongside Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, and where the Jackson-Hyman household will provide them with temporary room and board.

Not only is Rose impressed by Jackson’s famously unsparing vision of tribalism and cruelty, she’s turned on, corralling Fred into some risky onboard lovemaking. But the notion of Jackson’s prose as aphrodisiac turns quickly ironic when the Nemsers arrive at their hosts’ home, where a boozy start-of-term party is underway. As she watches Jackson and Hyman holding court – a framing device that enables indulgently showy entrances by the actors playing them, Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg – Rose witnesses not enviable intellectual symbiosis, but an uncomfortable performance of marital disharmony, with many a true word clearly spoken in jest. “To our suffering, my dear!” Hyman toasts. “There’s not enough Scotch in the world for that,” responds his wife, to general merriment.

Michael Stuhlbarg as Stanley Edgar Hyman

The idea of a performance that serves to expose the truth is perhaps fitting for a film that seeks to reveal a person who really lived via events that never happened. Jackson, Hyman, Bennington College and The Lottery are all matters of historical record; the Nemsers, and the intense relationship they go on to establish with their hosts, are not. Shirley follows its source novel in seeking to depict Jackson’s life as though it is one of her fictions: a space in which imagination and reality blur, the symbolic has as much force as the material, and ordinary life is subject to dark manipulations.

Rose initially represents a straightforward threat to Shirley’s bond with the sexually wayward Stanley: beautiful, housewifely and fecund, where Shirley is slatternly and childless. (We shall return to the childlessness.) Rose’s lack of interest in Stanley and unabated admiration for Shirley soon win the lonely older woman over, however, and their relationship becomes a heady mix of creative collaboration and stolen kisses, reminiscent of the happier phases of Heavenly Creatures (1994). But then Rose gives birth, and promptly morphs into yet another feminine archetype: the promising woman reduced to hollow-eyed derangement by the privations of motherhood.

The film is at its most effective and affecting not when it attempts the high drama of unsolved murders (the two women briefly involve themselves in a real-life case presented as influential on Jackson’s 1951 novel Hangsaman), extramarital affairs and suicide attempts, but when it depicts more subtle and intimate forms of betrayal and manipulation. Stanley’s superficial charm and shameless self-interest is depicted with particular insight, and beautifully played by Stuhlbarg. We glimpse an infinite expanse of historical male entitlement in the brief scene in which Stanley co-opts Rose into taking over Shirley’s neglected household chores; a later sequence in which he subjects Fred to a brutal intellectual dressing-down is a similarly fierce and effective distillation of academic insecurity and pretentiousness.

Logan Lerman as Fred and Odessa Young as Rose Nemser in Shirley

Moss, tasked both with portraying a well-known and visually distinctive real-life person and with playing multiple scenes that may or may not be occurring only in the realm of fantasy, has the harder job. Though persuasively edgy, angry and strange – and provided by Sarah Gubbins’s fine script with plenty of savage witticisms and sharp observations – her Shirley is not someone to whom the film brings us close. Rather, she is a catalyst, her strangeness stirring others into anger or action.

For Rose, she is both dream-self and nightmare-self, embodying the fulfilment of creative and intellectual potential, but the loss of femininity, desirability and warmth. (Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s restless, shadowy camerawork habitually blends and blurs the women’s faces and bodies as they grow close, letting us mistake one for the other in spite of their contrasting appearances.)

Stanley, meanwhile, at once envies her talent and guards his connection to it, monitoring her work even as he betrays her with other women. The mysterious force of Jackson’s writing – “The world doesn’t seem the same – how do you do that?” implores a fan – has implicitly cost her all cohesion and contentment as a person.

Maybe Shirley does not quite come together here because such a large part of what forms her has been left out. While openly fictionalised portraits owe negotiable fealty to biographical truth, it’s startling for a film concerned with the impact of domestic and reproductive labour on women’s intellectual and creative lives to erase the fact that its protagonist’s real-life embodiment had four children. They’re present in Merrell’s novel, but vanished here: “Having the kids was very complicated, so we took out her children,” director Josephine Decker told an interviewer from Vox earlier this year.

Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson

But her children weren’t incidental to Jackson’s life, her writing, or the marital discord in which the film does take an interest. The difference in lived experience between a woman having four children and one having none is considerable; more so in an era that automatically assigned childcare to mothers; and yet more so should that mother wish to do something selfish and time-consuming like write.

The omission of her experience of motherhood renders this version of Jackson the “witch” she jokes about being, irrationally angry at abstract forces, rather than understandably burned out from tending offspring, husband and career. The juxtaposition of the fecund and pulchritudinous Rose with a sharp-tongued, wild-eyed Shirley who jokes about inducing miscarriage, meanwhile, encourages the notion that Jackson’s uncompromising sensibility was incompatible with and opposed to motherliness. In fact, her children remembered her as loving and attentive.

It’s a time-honoured complaint of feminists that parenthood is habitually disappeared from the public lives of prominent men: interviews ignore it, biographies skate over it. It would be a hollow sort of equality to elevate more female creators to biopic-worthy status, only to disappear as excessively ‘complicated’ the very unpaid workload that has historically hindered their access and participation.

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