SHIRLEY (2020, streaming on Amazon Prime) is a biopic about novelist Shirley Jackson. It’s a slow burn, and, while it will appeal to people who’d never read Jackson’s work, it’s not for everyone. That being said, it really stands out for its terrific acting performances, direction, and rejection of the usual phoned-in laundry-list scripting that plagues biopic films.
The film’s main protagonist is a fictional character Rose, whose husband Fred has been hired as a lecturer at Bennington College, where Jackson’s husband works as a professor. The older couple invite the younger to stay with them until they get settled, which turns out to be a ruse to get Rose to take care of Shirley, who is hard drinking and lethargic to the point of appearing clinically depressed. Over time, finding themselves in similar circumstances in life, the women form something of a symbiotic connection, each learning something important from the other. All the while, we see Shirley writing her 1951 novel HANGSAMAN, gaining small insights into her torturous creative process.
The film is based on the novel SHIRLEY by Susan Scarf Merrell, which fictionalized Jackson’s real life around this time period. This was a great decision, as biopic films tend to be boring and by the numbers. They fictionalize what shouldn’t be fictionalized to create shortcuts, while staying so true to real life otherwise that there’s often simply a series of events and no real plot or character arc. SHIRLEY goes the other way, keeping the essence of truth but then telling a fictional story within it and finding themes in it, in this case a study of the madness of creative genius and a subtle feminist critique of the lack of choices women faced at the time. It worked for me.
The acting is great, particularly Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Odessa Young. They have plenty to work with, though Jackson and her worshipful but controlling and enabling husband are often performative to the point of edging on grating and unlikable. (If I had to live with these people, I would have run screaming or throttled them.) Young is great as Rose, who gives us somebody to connect to, understand, and root for. The directing is also good, with its visual styling evoking the feelings of disorder and dread produced by Jackson’s novels.
So again, while this film is not for everyone, I liked it quite a bit.