★★★★ - STUFF
- Elisabeth Moss shines as troubled Haunting of Hill House author -
Having been gaslighted (The Invisible Man) and concubined (The Handmaid’s Tale) in her most recent high-profile roles, Elisabeth Moss looks like she’s having a ball as this subversive drama’s eponymous protagonist.
Best known for penning The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson was an eccentric mystery and horror writer whose work has been cited as an inspiration by everyone from Neil Gaiman to Stephen King.
Taking her lead from Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel, screenwriter Sarah Gubbins’ (Better Things) 1964-set tale revolves around Shirley’s reaction to the arrival of young couple Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) into her Vermont home.
Originally only planning on residing there for a few days, the pair are persuaded to stay by Jackson’s college professor husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) for whom Fred is working as an assistant. Now without a housekeeper, Stanley is concerned that the increasingly reclusive Shirley can’t keep up with the needs of the household. “It would be a titanic help if you could chip in with the laundry and cooking,” he pleads with Rose.
While initially reluctant, she sees it as a chance to get to know the author “of the most reviled story The New Yorker has ever printed”. However, Shirley isn’t exactly grateful, unimpressed that her short story The Lottery made Rose feel “thrillingly horrible”, commenting that “a clean house is evidence of mental inferiority” and constantly attempting to provoke a reaction out of the recently married, newly pregnant ingenue.
But just when Rose is about ready to walk out in disgust, the pair form an unlikely bond over the details of a missing college girl, a puzzle that might just provide the inspiration to smash Shirley’s current writer’s block.
With its clever point-of-view shots and intimate hand-held camerawork, director Josephine Decker’s Shirley is deliberately designed to draw the viewer into this intoxicating and toxic world of deception, manipulation and cutting criticism. That it succeeds, despite following a somewhat predictable path, is also down to a taut script and three terrific performances from Moss, Stuhlbarg (The Shape of Water) and Young (Assassination Nation).
If you’re a fan of awkward dinner conversations, surreal, vivid dreams, philosophical debates and spiky personalities, then you’ll think Shirley is, as Stanley describes originality, “a brilliant alchemy of critical thought and creativity”.
- James Croot
Shirley is now playing at Light House Petone & Cuba!