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Berlinale Bloggers 2020
A literary legend and an Aussie up-and-comer

Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young in "Shirley"
Elisabeth Moss (left) and Odessa Young in "Shirley" | © 2018 LAMF Shirley Inc.

Elisabeth Moss stars as writer Shirley Jackson in the thorny and compelling psychological thriller Shirley - and she’s well-matched by Australian actor Odessa Young.

By Sarah Ward

With 1959’s The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson penned one of the most influential horror novels ever written. Her fifth book spins a story about strangers involved in a study in a supposedly haunted mansion, with their ghostly altercations not only spooking the text’s tense pages, but inspiring two film adaptations as well as a TV series of the same name. It leaves an imprint on Shirley, Josephine Decker’s new movie about the author, too. While based on a fictional novel by Susan Scarf Merrell and more concerned with mentioning Jackson’s acclaimed 1948 short story The Lottery, this not-quite biopic also lurks around an abode that’s filled with anguish and torment.
That home is inhabited by Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), thanks to the latter’s professorial role at Vermont’s Bennington College. It’s a place where, as Stanley’s new teaching assistant Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rose (Odessa Young) discover as they enter in 1964, the air seems to change. Struggling with her next project and prone to dark spells, Jackson rarely leaves. Asked to play housekeeper while Stanley and Fred are at work, Rose soon falls into the same category. The more time the two initially adversarial women spend together, the more it influences their other relationships.

More than just a biopic

In bringing one of her own inspirations to the screen, Decker acknowledges a vital truth: that a mere life-to-death biographical drama would never do Jackson justice. Instead, Shirley bakes the author’s sensibilities into its very frames, following her evocative, ethereal and bold lead rather than merely trying to recreate her life. The film shines as a character study, with Moss continuing a spate of excellent current form - including The Handmaid’s Tale and The Invisible Man - as the inimitable, unvarnished and mysterious writer. But Shirley is perhaps more effective as an immersive wander not through the frequently depressed, constantly agoraphobic literary figure’s life, but through her mental state and her influence, as evidenced through Rose. Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss in "Shirley" Michael Stuhlbarg plays the role of Jackson's husband in "Shirley" | © 2018 LAMF Shirley Inc. As seen in her previous Berlinale-screening feature, 2018’s Madeline’s Madeline, Decker cares not for standard big-screen storytelling conventions; more important is capturing the essence of her on-screen figures, interrogating what makes them tick and conveying all of the above in an expressive fashion. Thankfully, that remains in Shirley, as does Madeline’s Madeline’s focus on thorny female relationships. Luxuriating in claustrophobic, shallow focus-heavy imagery that cuts to the heart of Jackson’s closed-off world, Decker tells a tale of a woman who dared to be brilliant and to truly be herself at the same time — something women are rarely allowed to do, either in the movie’s 1950s setting or now — and the kindred spirit she finds in Rose.

A standout supporting performance

While Jackson earns the film’s title, Rose’s story is just as weighty. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine that the author, not Scarf Merrell, could’ve penned the character herself. And, it’s just as easy to see what draws the initially frosty on-screen version of the writer to her younger, more optimistic houseguest (and one of her fans) and vice versa, even when they first seem like complete opposites. Crucial here, and to Shirley in general, is Young’s performance. In her hands, Rose’s many layers start to unravel from the outset. First introduced reading The Lottery and finding it so thrilling that she whisks Fred off to a train bathroom for a quick tryst, she’s never merely the dutiful housewife, despite how her husband, Stanley and everyone except Shirley always perceives her.
Since earning widespread acclaim in Australian drama The Daughter, Young has proven a formidable talent - an actor who can combine fragility and ferociousness in one multi-faceted package with naturalistic ease and emotional flair. She was called upon to the same in fellow Aussie film Looking for Grace, too, and Shirley belongs in the same company. Here, though, she’s a young woman rather than a teen. She’s equally vulnerable and fierce, as she has been in her other standout work, but there’s a particular maturity to her performance. And, a force to it, too, with Young more than holding her own against her exceptional co-star in what becomes a visually and emotionally stimulating psychological thriller.