Director Josephine Decker’s (Madeline’s Madeline) Shirley Jackson biopic was one of the standout films at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Set just before the author’s premature death in 1965, Shirley is the backdrop for a larger conversation about the author’s underappreciated work, her tragic life, and the mid-century role of women in the household.
Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) is a successful writer suffering from alcoholism and agoraphobia when the pregnant Rose (Odessa Young) and her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) arrive at the writer’s Vermont home. The couple plan to live with Shirley and her husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), as Fred works at the local university under Stanley’s tutelage. With Shirley bed-ridden and living in a sty, Stanley enlists Rose to play homemaker. The two women forge a reluctant bond as Shirley drafts a new novel.
Shirley traps the audience in Shirley’s dingy bedroom, disheveled kitchen, and ink-stained writing nook for much of its hour and 47-minute runtime. The reclusive horror writer found remarkable inspiration in the cramped world around her. Only leaving home to attend her husband’s annual social functions as a sideshow attraction, Shirley exists in juxtaposition to Rose, who is trapped at home with Shirley at Stanley’s behest.
Rose exemplifies the historical, gendered limitations on women as recently as 60 years ago. Shirley is able to indulge her creative genius from home while Rose must curtail her own ambitions to support her husband, serve as Shirley’s live-in nurse and companion, and eventually raise her child. There’s no expectation for Fred to maintain the home or assist in childcare duties, but if Rose was teaching in his place, she would be a pariah. In the 60 years since, women have assumed a conventional role in the workplace, but men have not assumed the same societal role in childcare or homemaking.
The contrast between Shirley and Rose is possible through the convenient omission of Shirley and Stanley’s four children by screenwriter Sarah Gubbins, but the point remains. As is standard with biopics, Gubbins rearranges the facts to generate drama. Shirley lauds the titular author’s prose and builds interpersonal tension between its four leads, but very little plot propels the story forward; the result is a sluggish pace.
Moss, whose exceptional range was on full display in a single calendar year with 2019’s Us and Her Smell, is unsurprisingly fantastic. Stuhlbarg and Lerman slip into the duplicitous skin of serial cheaters with ease. Both actors exhibit the smarmy arrogance of college professors who make a habit of sleeping with impressionable students. This isn’t the last we’ll see of the 22-year-old Young, either. The Australian actress is set to star as Frannie Goldsmith in CBS All Access’s upcoming production of Stephen King’s The Stand. Young embodies the quiet resentfulness of a young woman coming to age in a time that wouldn’t appreciate her intelligence.
Decker’s Shirley shares major themes—including allusions to lesbianism and an exploration of feminism—with the work of its subject. The biopic will successfully stoke audience curiosity in stories like Hangsaman, “The Lottery,” and The Haunting of Hill House, and the woman behind them.