In the recent years, Elisabeth Moss has transformed herself into a beast of an actor. Her sharp acting keeps pushing the boundaries and setting higher standards in each occasion. In the aftermath of Madmen, she quickly bounces with staggering performance in all seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale before winning Palme D’Or in Ruben Östlund’s The Square, and the unnerving acting in Her Smell. In 2020, she single-handedly leads Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man into its acclaimed status. Shirley, however, presents a challenge that she manages to overcome with scintillating details in portraying Shirley Jackson, quirky horror author who writes The Haunting in the Hill House.
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Shirley is far too close to be called a biopic. The story, obviously, features a real story of Ms. Jackson struggling to finish writing what would eventually be Hangsaman; but, that’s just the closest to real the movie could ever be. She has the vision to write about the mysterious vanishing of a local student, but anxiety that keeps creeping on her back hinders her from leaving the house. Consequently, she’s dry from any research and inspiration. To help her focusing on the writing, her husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor in a local university, invites his academic protégé, Fred (Logan Lerman), along with the wife, Rose (Odessa Young), into their house. As the men work at the campus, the women forge an unlikely bond that can feel sometimes intimidating, sometimes sensual, and sometimes beneficial.
Nothing is quite like common biographical story, Shirley is defined not by the authenticity of the subject matter’s life story but the style of her writings and the atmosphere that follows. Everything about the titular character seems extremely unfathomable in plain observation. Her “biopic” story is presented to mirror her work: unnerving, intoxicating, and suspenseful, even borderline horrifying. It’s hard to guess how accurate is the titular character’s portrayal in the film; even, her son condemned the portrayal of his sophisticated parents, calling it misleading. But, one thing for sure, Shirley’s harrowing nature as portrayed in the film successfully coaxes patient audiences to delve into her enigmatic mind and how her modus operandi in accomplishing her finest works.
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The gravity, undoubtedly, revolves around Moss. Her portrayal of Shirley is a definitive depiction of mood swing. There’s this raw, candid performance that gives the titular character a lasting impression as an enigmatic figure. Shirley has a complicated relationship with her husband, whom she almost treats like a professional colleague rather than a life partner. She even remains unflinching when Stanley, overwhelmed by excitement, kisses Rose by her lips, suggesting the wife knows more than what she lets on. Moss achieves a new height of her performance, but only because Young exudes a completely different charm that becomes a catalyst for Moss’ catharsis. The dynamic between Moss and Young’s character makes up for the film’s rawest and murkiest territories and their chemistry is barely predictable. At one moment, Shirley will offend Rose and put an incomprehensible distance between them; but, some other time, their connection feels assuring and fruitful. Rose, even, works as Shirley’s body projection outside the house.
Based on a novel of the same title by Susan Scarf Merrell that had been adapted into screen by Sarah Gubbins. Shirley offers an elusive post-biopic that defies the normalcies of traditional biopic—channeling the subject matter’s mysterious nature with quirks and peculiarities embraced perfectly by Moss. It somehow cares more about the atmosphere and the style the subject matter’s left behind rather than the actual life stories. It solidifies the highly ambitious director Josephine Decker as one of the most promising directors in the recent years.