Josephine Decker channels the gothic atmosphere and horribly thrilling storytelling of Shirley Jackson's writing in this fictionalised portrait of the author

Film Review by Philip Concannon | 26 Oct 2020
  • Shirley
Film title: Shirley
Director: Josephine Decker
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman
Release date: 30 Oct
Certificate: 15

It’s hard to succinctly describe what Shirley is, but it most assuredly isn’t a biopic. Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins (adapting Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel) give us a fictionalized portrait of author Shirley Jackson (Moss), presenting her as if she was a character in one of her stories.

The gothic atmosphere, psychological fragmentation and cruel barbs recall Jackson’s writing, but the aesthetic style is all Decker’s. Her woozily subjective camerawork and fluid approach to narrative will likely alienate as many as it entrances, but few could deny it’s a bracingly inventive and bold piece of work – every scene feels charged with anxiety, bitterness or desire.

As in Madeline’s Madeline, Decker probes at the point where artistic inspiration and exploitation meet. Rose (Young) is a young woman entering Jackson’s life just as she writes about the disappearance of a female college student. As reality and fiction blend, Rose grows into a far more complicated and intriguing character than the wide-eyed newlywed we are introduced to, and Young more than holds her own against her co-stars. Michael Stuhlbarg is perfectly awful as Jackson’s smarmy and condescending husband, while Moss attacks the title role with relish, giving us a painfully vulnerable yet larger than life Jackson. “I'm a witch, didn't anyone tell you?” she tells Rose when they first meet, and you half-believe her.

Released 30 Oct by Curzon; certificate 15 – scroll on to read our interview with director Josephine Decker