Shirley (2020) Review – The World is too Cruel to Girls.


There is a scene in the film “Shirley”, where Stanley Hymen says “Originality is the alchemy of creative ideas and critical thoughts.” Efficacious or not depends on the perception but the film does strum on to a string of creative ideas.

Shirley, the 2020 psychological drama, directed by Josephine Decker, is based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell of the same name. It is an imaginative narrative built around the life of the American writer, Shirley Jackson and her husband Stanley Hymen as seen through the perspective of a fictional couple who are invited to live with them. The story has been adapted for the screen by Sarah Gubbins. This is not a biopic of Shirley Jackson, as there are a lot of discrepancies in the reel and real-life stories as some creative liberties have been taken. It could be seen as a story inspired by the style of writing that Shirley Jackson was widely known for, which also led to the creation of certain sub-genres. At max, it could be said to be an ode to the memory of the writer who created a sensation as soon as her first short story called “The Lottery” got published in The New Yorker, in 1948.

A young couple, Rose and Fred Nemser, played by Odessa Young and Logan Lerman respectively, decide to move to the house of Shirley Jackson and Stanley Hymen. The waggish and sometimes deranged character of Shirley Jackson is played ably and in an astounding fashion by Elizabeth Moss. When she and Michael Stahlberg, who plays Stanley Hymen, come on screen together, they create an infectious vivaciousness, as if they are bouncing off energies from each other. Shirley is receiving accolades for her work, but at the same time, people do not hesitate to talk behind her back about her personal struggles. Shirley makes it clear at the beginning itself that the guests would have to fend for themselves and shouldn’t expect any assistance from her side. Her husband is imposing and controlling at times but at the same time is solicitous towards Shirley. He knows how much he can stretch the limit and makes his way around it. It seems sometimes that their relationship is brittle but there exists a deeper understanding than what meets the eye. Shirley is trying to write a novella based around the disappearance of a girl. Words just don’t seem to come out this time. Shirley abhors the cloying nature of Rose but soon develops an affinity for her, as she unravels the intriguing and fascinating side, hidden from the sight of a casual observer.

Josephine Decker acquires a style that is peculiar in nature. Every scene is enwrapped in an aura of unpredictability. The characters suffer from a weirdly sourced perversity. The film also comments on the general attitudes of the male counterparts in marriage during that era. Shirley talks about the incessant want of every male to marry somebody who can anticipate their needs and satiate their hunger. It is expected from every female that she stokes the appetite of her male counterpart. But the opposite does not apply. “Let pray for a boy, the world is too cruel for a girl” says Shirley while cherishing an intimate moment with Rose. Even though Shirley is unconventional and free-spirited, there is a feudal dynamics between her and Hymen, where even though she never succumbs to the whims and fancies of her husband but does look for an approval, maybe subconsciously. Shirley bears some semblance to the quirky perspective of Rose. They share a fascination for mortality. They become so absorbed with the story that Shirley is trying to write that they start imagining themselves into the situations that would have led to the disappearance of the girl. Such a subject matter seems much unsubstantiated for the acclaimed writer. Shirley feels compelled to tell the story, as she does not sees it as just another thriller, but a story about every lonely girl who longs to be seen.

Shirley is mordant and curt, and Elizabeth Moss puts forth a proficient performance letting her expressive eyes do the bulk of the talking. Moss has an invigorating presence and clutches onto every tempestuous nuance tightly. Though the world of Shirley Jackson might be a bit abrasive but is no short of an exhilarating ride.

Shirley is a pyschological drama film, directed by Josephine Decker. It is based on the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell. Shirley is available on Video-on-Demand.

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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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