Newlywed Rose (Odessa Young) becomes an unlikely muse to famous and damaged horror writer Shirley Jackson in this tense and exciting drama.
Shirley has quite rightly been billed as Elizabeth Moss’ film, and her performance is every bit as insane as you would expect. An enigma in every scene, she balances melancholy with utter disdain, excitement with arousal and all of it surrounded by pure and utter madness. Selling the role, a particular stand out scene at a Christmas party proves Moss was not messing around, and Shirley herself is no joke.
Whilst this is Moss’ film, it entirely hinges on the chemistry between her and newlywed Rose which is palpable through the screen. Their relationship goes through a myriad of stages but you can feel the sparks as you watch it grow. Young’s performance is charming and alluring, her sexual chemistry with all the people in the house flows throughout. But she’s also sweet and earnest, and sells the insanity of what is happening, as the environment starts to overwhelm her.
Squaring out the quartet are Michael Stuhlbarg as Shirley’s husband Stanley and Logan Lerman as his teaching assistant. Stuhlberg is particularly wonderful as the smug professor, similar to his role in Call Me By Your Name, but with none of the tender care, this time he’s all superiority. His inappropriate grazes, his demanding tone, his mocking looks – the performance is brilliantly devilish and the audience can never truly sense what side of the coin he is on.
There are beautiful abstract sequences throughout the film, feeling at times dreamlike and at others coldly gothic. Director Josephine Decker has done a wonderful job of creating a claustrophobic environment that at the same time seems so enigmatic that you understand why this young couple wouldn’t want to leave.
On the whole, Shirley is utterly engaging, but its quick tonal shifts could easily lose an audience and it won’t be a film for everyone. For me? I want to revisit Shirley’s manor as soon as possible.