LFF 2020: Shirley – Review

Release Date: 30th October 2020, Cert – 15, Run-time – 1 hour 47 minutes, Director – Josephine Decker

Bored by the seemingly pedestrian style of the outside world anxiety-filled author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) begins to find inspiration in a twisted relationship with a young woman (Odessa Young) staying in her home.

Elisabeth Moss has been heavily billed and advertised as the central figure of Josephine Decker’s latest feature, after all Shirley Jackson is the title star. However, the story very much belongs to Odessa Young’s house guest, Rose, staying in the Jackson’s home after being invited by Shirley’s husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), Rose’s husband, Fred (Logan Lerman) having become his assistant at the college he lectures at. The film is an exploration of the famous writer’s behaviour through the eyes of someone new to her world. Rose becomes Shirley’s inspiration after far too long struggling to find something to base her new novel on – only having found something in the story of a recently missing girl in the area, but unsure as to what to do with it.

Shirley’s behaviour is undeniably peculiar. She takes delight in testing other people and their behaviour and reactions to the dark and macabre – something which initially disturbs Rose before gradually finding intrigue within the woman whose home she finds herself living in. The two are interested by each others personalities and what makes each other tick, and there’s a level of interest to that. However, on Shirley’s part there’s definitely more under the surface layer, something that’s made clear from the very start. It appears that she and her husband, who plays with the mind of Rose’s husband, causing him to almost be tormented at work and having an effect on Rose herself, take delight in playing with other people’s minds. Not quite creating a horror feel to the piece but still that of a dark drama – perhaps capturing the tone of the titular figure more than a horror would.

Because of the nature of the characters and they way that they interact throughout the piece it’s often difficult to properly connect with them and engage with the scenarios that they find themselves in. This especially being the case when it comes to some of the more intimate, character-altering scenes between Rose and Shirley. As they come to apparently understand each other more, their bond increasing during some of the weirder moments of the film. However, often during such moments you never quite feel a part of the world. Often there’s something about the film that leads you to simply be watching a screen, not feeling properly involved with the unfolding actions on screen. Leading a number of scenes and ideas to not quite have the fully intended effect.

The performances throughout are all good, and as many have noted Moss is again on great form; with Young also demonstrating an equally strong turn. And there are some tonally interesting moments that help to convey the twisted nature of some of the characters, their intentions questionable throughout; their string-pulling ways surrounding playing with the mind also creating elements of intrigue. However, due to the lack of proper investment within the world and little connection with the characters the film does plod along at times with a rather slow pace. The viewer is left to simply watch a screen instead of properly get up close into the personal state of the complex and otherwise intriguing minds of the characters, which have the potential for a truly dark and thrilling feature.

The performances that act out the scenarios the complex characters find themselves in within Shirley are all strong, and the tonal feel is well done too. However, due to the nature of the characters it’s hard to properly connect with them and therefore feel a part of the world, meaning the film does sometimes feel rather slow.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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