Elisabeth Moss has surely one of the most interesting careers in America right now. On television, she’s famed for Mad Men, but dramas like Top of the Lake and The Handmaid’s Tale show just how willing she is to go to extremes. The same goes for cinema, starring in films like High Rise, The Square and Queen of Earth, where she really showed her unhinged side.
Shirley is another example of Moss at her most daring. She plays Shirley Jackson, the author who, in 1958, wrote The Haunting of Hill House (which inspired several adaptations, most famously Robert Wise’s film The Haunting). This is not a horror film, however; rather it’s a character study of artistic stagnation, alcoholism, jealously, infidelity, you name it.
The setting is Bennington, a liberal arts college in Vermont in the early 1960s, and Jackson is married to literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) – together they were the subjects of a 2014 novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, which serves as the basis for the screenplay here by Sarah Gubbins. Jackson is in the throes of writing a new book, which is causing her to fray at the edges.
In need of help, Hyman lures in two students – Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young) – to stay, room and board free, and help out with the cooking and cleaning. And so you have a very claustrophobic situation coming to the boil, particularly with the abusive Shirley spitting out bile towards all and sundry. The classic Edward Albee play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? springs to mind, as the two couples become dangerously entwined.
Directed by Josephine Decker, who previously made the well-like 2018 film Madeline’s Madeline, this is what you might call an actor’s piece. Moss is venomous in her role, while Stuhlbarg is superb as the bon vivant, who plays a great host better than he does a great husband. Lerman is a little flaccid in his role, but Odessa Young (Assassination Nation) is the surprise package – every bit Moss’ equal as the young girl quietly suffering in this hermetically-sealed campus world.
With expert production design by Sue Chan – the house where much of the action plays out is deliciously styled – and impressive cinematography from Norwegian DP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, the film becomes a visual expression of the characters’ state of minds. You’ll leave it wanting more.
Shirley is in cinemas from 30 October. For more details, click here.