Film in Focus: Shirley (Dir. Josephine Decker, 2020)

Shirley Jackson is the subject of a new film, Shirley, out this month and available to rent from Curzon Home Cinema. It is reviewed by our guest blogger, Cardiff University’s Robert Lloyd. Author of a doctoral thesis on Shirley Jackson, Robert will be joining us on the panel next week.

‘As someone who has spent the majority of the last four years reading, thinking, and writing about Shirley Jackson and her work for my PhD thesis, the news that a feature-length film centred on her life was in production, to be released in the summer of 2020, stirred up a welter of competing emotions. On the one hand, excitement at the prospect of seeing my favourite author being portrayed on the big screen, potentially driving a whole new audience to seek out her novels and short stories for the first time; on the other, a degree of trepidation that this ‘Shirley Jackson’ would be a pale imitation of the writer I’d come to know and revere through her texts, especially the brilliantly complex self-characterisation she presents to us in her life-writing collections Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). This feeling of anxiety also reflected the fact that the film is based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s biografictional novel Shirley (2014), rather than adapting Jackson’s own publications. Although Merrell exhibits a clear admiration for her subject, I found the novel to be an unremarkable portrait of one of the twentieth century’s most significant female writers, an author who distilled the unsettling experiences of everyday life into novels and short stories of startling intensity and creative nuance. How was all of this going to be pulled together, and just how ‘present’ was Jackson going to be in the final picture?  
 
All things considered, I think the film falls somewhere between ‘not bad’ and ‘pretty good’. Elisabeth Moss is particularly terrific, perfectly capturing the contradictions between the different facets of Jackson’s personality without ever pushing the performance into the realms of Gothic derangement that it might be tempting to channel.

Michael Stuhlbarg as Stanley Hyman and Elizabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson

The film is also beautifully shot and edited, the cinematography shimmering like a dream that’s on the verge of sliding into a nightmare. This oneiric haziness serves as the backdrop for the developing connection between Jackson and Ruth (Odessa Young), one-half of an (entirely fictional) newlywed couple – together with Logan Lerman’s Fred – who move in with Jackson and her husband, Stanley Hyman (wonderfully played by Michael Stuhlbarg), after Fred is hired to teach on Hyman’s ‘Myth and Ritual’ course at Bennington College.

This emerging relationship between the two women plays off the ripples of coded lesbianism that can be traced throughout Jackson’s writing , but does so without overdetermining them, or reducing this display of female affection into a crass retaliation against both of their philandering husbands (Hyman was a notorious and practised adulterer, exerting a rather predatory attraction over his female students). And apart from a few strangely rose-tinted moments, the film does a decent job of defining the relationship between Jackson and Hyman, particularly Jackson’s desire for his approval (sometimes against her better judgement), and Hyman’s editorial influence (he was frequently asked by Jackson to read her manuscripts and provide suggestions for improvement). These are all things that the film negotiates pretty effectively, given the complex reality that lies behind the narrative.  
 
That said, other aspects of the film left me confused and a bit disappointed. It occasionally veers into generic ‘tortured genius’ territory, without really specifying what it is that makes Jackson and her writing special. A few characters offer responses to her work, which they find ‘remarkable’ and ‘terrifying’, and the film opens with Rose as she finishes reading ‘The Lottery’ in The New Yorker, which leaves her in a state of delighted surprise that is edged with disgust. These scenes offer more of a rough pencil-sketch of the artist than a full portrait, acknowledging her essential features without the depth or definition that she truly warrants.

Elizabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson

There’s also a weird messing around with her second novel, Hangsaman (1951), the writing of which serves as the focus for the majority of the film. The odd sentence will suddenly be narrated, as if the novel can’t confine its words to the page but lets them spill out into the world, inviting the viewer to see Jackson’s fiction and day-to-day life as two sides of the same experience. However, these lines are not from the actual text, so that anyone familiar with it is left puzzled as to why this mock-novel – one that is still identified as Hangsaman – has taken its place, and what purpose it serves for the only words we either see or hear of Jackson’s to be fake.

Moreover, despite Elisabeth Moss’s commitment to the role, the script presents Jackson as peculiarly unsympathetic, and at times openly vituperative to those around her. Jackson may have been a woman of strong opinions but she was no bully, and the attempt to illustrate her intelligence and wit by making her a caustic, and occasionally unpleasant figure is an unfortunate mischaracterisation, a trade-off for a couple of sharp-tongued exchanges that does her few favours.  
 
When asked about his response to the film, Laurence Jackson Hyman – Shirley and Stanley’s eldest child (who, as far as the film is concerned, does not exist) – praised individual elements, but ultimately suggested that this depiction of his parents owes more to invention than reality, telling The Press Democrat that ‘[t]here are enough real facts in the movie to make you think it’s a biopic. But then it diverges, becoming entirely fiction’. In the end, I think this is perhaps the defining issue with Decker’s film. The ‘Shirley Jackson’ it presents to its audience is less interesting, less complex, and less ‘Jackson’-like than her real-world counterpart. Perhaps this would be the case with any depiction of her, but I think the film’s characterisation would have benefitted from being closer to Jackson’s own autobiographical voice instead of the real/unreal hybrid we get in this not-quite-biopic.’

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