Shirley strays nearly completely from its source material and perhaps that is its strength as the film takes an alternative look at domestic dynamics. Shirley surrounds the lives of the famed writer Shirley Jackson (Elizabeth Moss) and her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is a renowned and established folklore professor, as they take in a young couple Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman), as Fred begins working at the university as well. Shirley is described by Stanley to have “bouts” that impede her writing progress and ability to take care of the house. Because of that, Stanley asks Rose to work around the house and to keep an eye on Shirley in exchange for free room and board. All the while, Fred is desperately trying to establish himself at the university. Through these situations, Fred seeks Stanley’s approval and Rose seeks Shirley’s. The latter relationship awakens the women to different facets of their strengths and personalities.
Shirley feels like a hazy fever dream. At times, a sickening heat can be felt emanating from it, be it in the lingering close shots on flawed, pallid faces or the desperate, longing emotions conveyed in the performances in the film. Every character feels like they are desperately grasping for intimacy but their needs nearly never sync until it comes to the maturity of Rose and Shirley’s relationship. Once it crescendos, there’s a distinct feeling of understanding between the women. One sees that although Rose and Shirley are very different people, there is a bond of hurt and inadequacy between them as well as an intellectual bond. Perhaps if Rose were just a little more outspoken, she too could combat the intellectual prowess that their college professor husbands show in dinnertime conversations. If that were the case, she would be just like Shirley, who does not hesitate when it comes to speaking her mind or correcting an inaccurate statement.
There’s little safety in the film. The Hyman house feels hostile, mostly because of Stanley’s encroaching presence when he is there and Fred’s desperate need to have footing in this new, foreign world of university politics and interaction. The outside world is also hostile. All other women feel like sirens, built to lure the men of the film to their demise with their inviting gazes and bright clothes. Rose and Shirley are nearly always muted and presented as the less appealing options to everyone except one another. However, moments of safety are created when they are alone together. A notable scene is one where Shirley goes to a store with Rose to find an outfit for a university party they will be attending with Fred and Stanley. Shirley, who has been housebound for an undetermined amount of time is overwhelmed at the task and Rose comes into the dressing room to comfort her and provide options for partywear. Shirley calms down and they share a rare smile with one another and Rose gently rests her chin on Shirley’s shoulder. It is moments like these that project the audience across the murky, unsure waters of the womens’ complex relationships with their husbands.
Ultimately, Shirley is a fantastic, pensive look at the household roles that dominate society not only in the timeframe of the film but in society today as well. Moss is a complete standout, as usual, and the other performances accent it well. The film is utterly captivating and leaves one with a feeling of unease. It demonstrates that even in cases of extreme giftedness and intelligence, there is always an eye of scrutiny looking to shoot feminine genius down at every turn. The key, according to the film, seems to be removing oneself from convention and going down a road less travelled.
Shirley is now available on Hulu & VOD
Making my way through the world. Writing and stuff.