Shirley, portrayed by Josephine Decker, has no patience for such thorny irritants as the truth. Simply said, the human mind possesses too much potential. The film by Decker is loosely based on the life of Shirley Jackson, the legendary Gothic author.
The actual Jackson and her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, had four children, but they do not have any in this version. Jackson preferred her home to be lively and filled with color and light; here, she is gloomy as a corpse awaiting burial.
Decker aims for something far more grandiose than the typical biopic. This is a depiction of her genius, not her life. Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series was inspired by The Haunting of Hill House (1959).
In addition, they create a muse for her. Rose (Odessa Young) and her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) had recently settled in Bennington, Vermont. They had been invited to spend a few days in Shirley’s (Elisabeth Moss) and Stanley’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) ivy-covered home while Fred adjusts to his new position at the local college, where Stanley is a professor. But Shirley suffers from what her husband refers to as “bouts” and tries to keep up with her wifely responsibilities; Rose becomes a housekeeper without compensation.
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It provides a method for Decker to continue her research of creativity as a community rather than an individual concept, which was a prominent theme of her earlier film Madeline’s Madeline. In this film, a theatre director attempted to adapt and, more perniciously, appropriate a young woman’s trauma for the stage. Here, the trade-off is more emotional.
The two women initially resist each other. Shirley approaches the scenario as though she were in a private performance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – Act I. She brings up Rose’s pregnancy, which the couple had planned to keep hidden while holding a drink. She snaps at Fred, “Well, I do hope it’s yours,” as an impudent crab. Rose attempts to seek refuge in her husband’s embrace, but he is preoccupied with his own desires.
Rose and Shirley are gradually brought closer together by the petty cruelties of men. Stanley is a superb manipulator, discreet in his infidelity and in the manner in which his jealousy is always disguised as fake concern.
Shirley is incapable of producing another novel. Shirley should not compose too many pages without her husband’s approval. Stuhlbarg has a sophisticated manner of imparting charisma that seems to balance on the edge of a knife. The fear that Stanley could turn at any moment is a source of unspoken terror.
Shirley’s sensuality and allure are a manifestation of witchcraft. The camera twirls like Stevie Nicks in one of her shawls, stumbling towards the characters so as to examine their faces. The cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grvlen fills the screen with warm, fall hues, with only a few cigarette smoke trails for contrast.
At night, crickets and frogs serve as a chorus. The screenplay by Sarah Gubbins and the novel on which it is based by Susan Scarf Merrell pay homage to Jackson in the manner she would have most appreciated; they transform her into one of her own characters who are enamored with the wicked and macabre.
In contrast, Decker’s films are never unambiguous regarding art and identity. Nor is the growing relationship between Rose and Shirley. It is sexual in nature. It is religious. Their identities are beginning to merge and mix.
The picture is set at the time that Jackson was composing Hangsaman (1951), which was largely inspired by the disappearance of a college student from Bennington.
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In the film, the lost woman appears to Shirley in a sequence of visions in which she eerily resembles Rose (played by Young with red-hued hair). It reminds the author of her own terrible childhood.
Rose, in turn, begins to resemble Shirley more and more with each passing day, her thick, angry hair framing dark circles and blotchy skin. A rebellious spirit begins to stir within her.
It is a shocking transition, in part due to the fact that these performers were cast as such ideal opposites. The always-excellent Moss hardens her expression into a predatory stare at Shirley.
Her voice sounds both gruff and close as if she is encouraging you to share a dreadful secret. Young, on the other hand, possesses a beautiful voice and demeanor. When Rose reveals, though, that Shirley’s work makes her feel “thrillingly terrible,” you can sense an impending awakening.
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