As an avowed fan of literary horror writer Shirley Jackson, I was suspicious when a new biopic popped up on Hulu. It may be silly to get protective of a decades-dead writer, but I did. Shirley, though, is just about as unsettling as one of Jackson’s stories, and it refuses to wrap up cleanly, which I imagine she would appreciate. Shirley isn’t strictly a biopic, but I love the homage it pays to historical Shirley Jackson by turning her into a character much like one she might have written.
Shirley is directed by Josephine Decker and based on the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, which is in turn loosely based on the life of Shirley Jackson. The film follows Rose Nemsler as she follows her husband, aspiring professor Fred, across the country. Fred and Rose gratefully accept a temporary room in the home of professor Stanley Hyman and his wife, writer Shirley Jackson.
We first meet Rose open-mouthed on a train after reading one of Shirley’s stories – and quickly jump to Rose and her husband sneaking off to hook up in the train’s bathroom. We meet Shirley, played by a gloriously twitchy Elisabeth Moss, telling an adoring crowd how she came up with the story, though she’s quickly derailed by her husband bringing up the story of their courtship. Shirley and Rose’s own meeting is not auspicious, but it is the first thing they do in the movie that isn’t derailed by a man.
But Stanley asks Fred and Rose to stay while Shirley suffers what’s probably a depressive episode. He recruits Rose to take care of Shirley with an apparent liberalism that hides a distressing amount of treacly misogyny. Rose does cook the dinners and care for the house, but she also becomes Shirley’s research assistant, muse, and confidant as the frustrated author begins a new novel.
Shirley tackles a lot, including the author as the isolated eccentric and the smilingly pervasive misogyny of the era. But my favorite theme to trace through the two nearly mirror-image halves of the movie? A deep meditation on community – how a circle of relationships built on mutual insecurity and selfishness cheapens sacrifice. Such a circle can’t survive a real, selfless relationship.
The only problem is, true community is unwelcome in Shirley and Stanley’s world. Shirley, Stanley, and eventually Fred treat the rest of the world in a way that undermines Rose’s loyalty and sacrifice and alienates many of their colleagues. Shirley and Rose’s relationship soon threatens to upend their entire established system.
Rose, who wants to be wife, mother and scholar, and Shirley, fully engaged in the literary world and nearly lost to the rest of it, are each missing something. And when they start to help each other develop, the comfortable, patriarchal, egocentric status quo is threatened. Sacrifices matter more and community becomes nurturing, if still a bit insular and dark, instead of competitive.
A movie based on such a relationship could drag, but the film cuts between domestic, academic, and artistic spheres quickly enough that none of them stale. The film is gorgeously shot, and the very cozy domesticity of the cinematography lulls you into a period-drama calm before jerking you back to attention with some thriller jumps. The colors are beautiful, alternating between the dark browns and tans of an old sepia photograph and the icy blues and pale pinks of a hand-tinted shot. It’s also carefully and a touch uncannily choreographed, from a few siren-esque coeds hanging out in the campus trees, to Shirley and Rose’s nightmares, to the almost perfectly reflected first and second halves of the film.
Sometimes the film does feel a touch too choreographed and pretentious for its own good, but that vibe matches the four main characters all too well. (It also happens to be a brand of annoying I personally love.) And Shirley’s pretentiousness is offset by moments of stark, almost uncomfortable vulnerability, like the scene when the literary titan is crying on the floor of a dressing room over a dress that doesn’t fit.
Shirley and Stanley especially are often insufferable and occasionally cruel, much like many of the real life author’s characters. Jackson’s stories hyperbolize people and situations in order to point out some kind of toxicity, and the film treats the author the same way. I doubt Shirley and Stanley’s marriage was as toxic as this portrayal makes it seem, at least I hope it wasn’t, but the very unease of their partnership helps turn the screen Shirley into one of historical Shirley’s characters.
Despite the careful choreography, the film can feel a little crowded. It’s part biopic, part mystery, part horror, part homoerotic dreamscape. The mystery timeline especially either intrudes or is entirely forgotten, depending on the moment. But in the end, Rose and Shirley’s deep affection is the real story, and the focus on their transgressively nurturing relationship stays tight throughout.
The inside of a horror writer’s head is actually the perfect subject for a horror film. What’s real, what’s magic, and what’s Shirley’s dark fantasy? Just don’t confuse this on-screen Shirley, whose daily flannel, pajamas, and lack of makeup will be familiar to many a work-from-homer, with the real thing.