Shirley (Josephine Decker, 2018)
The first rule of biopics is that they are not biographies of their subjects — in this case we have Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), best known for the inexplicably thought to be frightening “The Lottery” and the twice-filmed The Haunting of Hill House. She clearly had some issues with smoking and barbiturates and other meds and an unfaithful husband.
Here a hell-for-leather Elizabeth Moss plays a paranoid, often drunk, housebound Jackson, whose husband and first editor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) has invited academic Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) and student Rosa Nemser (Odessa Young) to stay, with the assumption that their bed and board will be paid for by Rosa becoming housekeeper.
Jackson is initially suspicious of Rosa — whose reaction to reading “The Lottery” for the first time is to shag her husband in a train toilet — but recruits her as research assistant and experimental subject. Meanwhile, Hyman is jealous and dismissive of Fred.
The idea is to put Jackson in the plot of one of her own stories, but the result is as if Peter Strickland filmed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with Sapphic overtones and an inability to keep the film in focus. You can’t trust anything you see, as characters lie and at times we slide into her imagined novel in progress.
So, do we have to assume that her four children are there but not seen and not heard? That Hyman would lecture like that? That the wife of the Dean would be allowed to work as a librarian? It’s all deeply uncomfortable, although it’s interesting to see a more complex view of womanhood than we have historically had in film.
But I now know less about Jackson than I did this morning.