‘Shirley’ Review: A Story Within a Story Between The Dynamic of Two Women

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Shirley (2020) was based off a novel by Susan Scarf Merrel and is an insightful tale on Shirley Jackson’s life during the time she wrote one of her most famous novels, Hangsaman. The movie was produced by Killer Films and Los Angeles Media Fund and stars Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson. What struck me the most about this slightly haunting and very intriguing film is that it portrays this critical time in Jackson’s life in the style of one of her very own stories. 

Eerie music and strange illusions from Jackson encapsulate the feel of what her novels would be like realized. Instead, this film makes a fraction of Jackson’s life into its own haunting tale, one that is partially accurate and partially fictionalized. A young couple is invited by Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), to live with the couple for a semester. The accurate part is Jackson’s reclusive and depressive state; she never leaves her house due to a bout of writer’s block and rejects any form of social contact. Despite being seen as “different” and a “strange woman” Jackson ignores the comments from her husband and lets herself reel in this state, even if she knows it may not be the best for her.

“There are dozens and dozens of girls like this, littering campuses across the country. Lonely girls who cannot make the world see them. Do not tell me I do not know this girl. Don’t you dare!” When Hyman claims that Jackson does not know the girl she is writing about in her novel, Jackson speaks with indignation. Jackson upholds something here with clarity–she knows her characters. She knows herself.

Moss gives a strong performance in this film. She blends perfectly a woman who feels broken but still holds reign of who she is and what she does best–writing. In the beginning of the film, it is unclear whether Jackson knows who she is or where she wants to go after the success of her short story in The New Yorker, but by the end, it’s given that she may have found herself again by writing this novel about a character she created based off a missing persons case. It took all her might to write this one, because “it hurt, this one.” 

Despite the dynamic between Jackson and Hyman, who spend almost the entire film trying to push each other not quite over the line, what I think is the more interesting dynamic is between Jackson and Rose Nemser, who arrives to stay with Jackson and Hyman with her husband, Fred. Rose is a young college student who has a shotgun wedding with Fred and drops out of college due to pregnancy.

Rose is the first person introduced in the film, reading The Lottery, Jackson’s short story published in The New Yorker. She respects and admires Jackson’s writing and is eager to tell Jackson so when she arrives at her home. It feels like a burn to watch Jackson reject Rose’s admiration almost immediately. This showed the beginning of a rocky relationship between the two.

Rose spends most of her time cooking and cleaning for the household, at least when she’s not trying to have a breakdown any time Jackson lashes out at her or mocks her shotgun wedding. Rose starts at the top of the movie, then slowly dwindles down as she begins to feel alone and rejected. Fred is never home, attending Shakespeare Society meetings at school (later revealed as infidelity), and Jackson, who seems to be Rose’s inspiration at the start, turns into her worst nightmare.

There are a few moments between Rose and Jackson that show some sort of allegiance between the two. After a verbal altercation between Jackson and her husband, Jackson runs off into the woods and Rose after her. Jackson tricks Rose into thinking she ate a poisonous mushroom until she laughs, and asks Rose why she is still here. She asks Rose if she trusts her.

Sometimes Jackson has illusions of Rose in relation to writing her novel. Perhaps, Jackson sees a bit of Rose in her character, or an even more daring thought–she sees a bit of Rose in herself. Whatever it is, Jackson and Rose surely come to a mutual agreement towards the end. It is refreshing when two women who are fighting their own battles and albeit very rare, find an unusual comfort and understanding in each other. Still, their relationship remains complicated.

Rose and Fred leave the house after a year with the help of Hyman, coincidentally after Jackson finishes her novel. Fred suggests coming back sometime. Rose says “I’m not going back to that. Little Wifey. Little Rosie. That was madness.” Rose still has control over who she is and what she wants to do. She is her own story.

Shirley (2020) was directed by Josephine Decker and stars Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young and Logan Lerman. It is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.


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‘Shirley’ Review: A Story Within a Story Between The Dynamic of Two Women