According to Mark Olsen in the Los Angeles Times, Martin Scorsese decided to come aboard Shirley as an executive producer when he saw Josephine Decker’s first feature, Butter on the Latch (2013). Writing about Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014), the New Yorker’s Richard Brody suggested that it “offers the primal renewal of the image, an image that emerges in the immediate form of the filmmaker’s emotional impulses.” And Madeline’s Madeline (2018) “obliterates any trace of traditional film language,” wrote David Ehrlich in an ecstatic review at IndieWire, where he argued that it was “one of the boldest and most invigorating American films of the twenty-first century.”
In short, hopes have been high ever since news broke that Decker would be directing an adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel, Shirley—but cautiously high. This would be Decker’s first period piece as well as the first feature she hasn’t written herself. Sarah Gubbins wrote the screenplay, and Decker tells Women and Hollywood that “Sarah writes incredibly honest and messy female characters. I could watch her characters all day.”
Shirley begins on a train carrying young Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) to Bennington, Vermont, where Fred has taken a job assisting Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), the literary critic who teaches at the local college and cares for his housebound, agoraphobic wife, the novelist and short story writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss). Both the novel and the film toy with the actual timelines and circumstances of Jackson and Hyman’s lives—they had four children, for example, but here, they’re childless.
Rose, pregnant and uprooted, and Fred will be staying in the home of this boozy couple, and in preparation, Rose is reading Jackson’s just-published short story, “The Lottery.” Anyone familiar with the story, one of the most widely read and taught in American literature, may well be surprised that Rose is so aroused by it that she pulls her new husband from his seat on the train into a bathroom for an onboard quickie.
The Guardian’s Benjamin Lee finds Shirley to be as “willfully unconventional as a literary portrait could possibly be” and “a thrillingly perverse example of what happens when the shackles of biopic formula are cast aside.” For David Ehrlich, “the film’s relatively straightforward nature only makes it that much easier to appreciate how Decker is bending the walls to her will.” Put off by Rose at first, Shirley begins to see in this underappreciated woman a reservoir of rich material for the book she’s working on. “Decker has an uncommon gift for getting us into her characters’ heads via smeary, discombobulated compositions and complex soundscapes (the driving, nervous score is by Tamar-kal),” writes Jason Bailey at the Playlist. “This visual and aural shorthand for mental illness proves equally effective for creating the fugue states, false starts, and jagged rhythms of the writing process.”
The house, too, “its porousness, semi-wildness and murkiness, its plush carpets, cracked steps and textured wallpaper, conduct us into Shirley’s waking dreams,” writes Ela Bittencourt in the Notebook. “It’s been a while that I’ve seen a mise en scène that so completely manifests the character’s subconscious.” But Shirley is also, at least for Hannah Woodhead at Little White Lies, “Decker’s funniest film to date, yet also her most intimate and erotic.”
Praise for Shirley, though, is not unanimous. On Monday’s Film Comment Podcast, Nicolas Rapold found that the two couples’ dynamic had him thinking of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Shirley did not fare well in the comparison. Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov misses the handiwork of cinematographer Ashley Connor, who had a hand in making Decker’s earlier features so “startling.” But even as she’s now working with Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, adds Rizov, Decker still manages to deploy “her customarily radically handheld camerawork, which makes Claire Denis look positively staid, combined with equally destabilizing editing to create a constantly distressed subjectivity.”
Shirley, now slated to compete in the Berlinale’s new Encounters program following its premiere at Sundance, is “a relentless film, ceaselessly in motion,” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. “Its actors, then, must go chasing after it, with Moss leading the fearless charge. She brilliantly maneuvers the film, moving in fluid response to Decker’s stimuli.”
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