As priceless as poo paper in a pandemic, the patter in SHIRLEY is literate and lacerating.
Like some semi-Gothic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, SHIRLEY is a macabre dissection of the zombie corpse of the harried, married life of middle class intellectuals.
The Shirley of the title is Shirley Jackson, the alcoholic writer who put the agro into agrophobia, married to Stanley Hymen, a pompous academic and critic. Stanley is hosting a new teacher to his university faculty, Fred Nemser, who is accompanied by his pregnant wife, Rose.
Offering the young couple couple food and board for domestic chores and close circuit surveillance of his wife, Fred and, in particular, Rose, become the lackeys of the lecherous lecturer.
Like the Albee play, SHIRLEY becomes a cloistered game of ill matched doubles played out by a cast of four and there’s litres of liquor to lubricate the libels and licentiousness.
“Here’s to our sufferings” toasts Stanley.
“There’s not enough scotch in the world.” replies Shirley.
An adroit wielder of castrating barbs, Shirley finds a conjugal jouster in her wandering, womanising spouse who is no slouch in verbal sadism.
Sharpening their claws on the two visitors, these two practitioners of the great American art of insult pour poetic invective with soaring cadenzas of spite on each other with erudite and razor tongued proficiency.
To be clear, this is not a biopic, but a tale told in the Shirley Jackson style, with the creator taking on character, the author’s image imprinted on the imagination of the narrative.
It’s a clever conceit conjured originally in the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, adapted into a screenplay by Sarah Gubbins and filmed by director, Josephine Decker.
The notion of Doppleganger is is given a further tier as Rose becomes the imaginative personification of the character of a book Shirley has been working on and having trouble with. A story inspired by the real and mysterious disappearance of a female student, it becomes a leitmotif of the movie.
“The only way to be noticed is to disappear” says Shirley, and “The world is too cruel for girls.”
Elizabeth Moss is splendid as Shirley, frowzy, frumpy, a thick spectacle in thick spectacles, often disheveled, depressed ad drunk, yet sharp eyed and sharp tongued, sometimes physically incapacitated yet always intuitive and mentally incisive.
Michael Stuhlbarg’s Stanley is an immaculate conception of the articulate elite, a word wielding wolf with no need for sheep’s clothing, acerbic, seductive, fluent in flattery and cuttingly cruel.
Equally impressive is Odessa Young as Rose whose journey arc of formidable transformation is exactly on target and, well, transformative. She matches Moss with palpable unpredictability, bursting from bobby sox and seamed stockinged “wifey” to self determining woman.
Production values are exemplary with Sue Chan’s production design capturing both the period and the fairy tale quality, ditto Amela Baksic’s costumes and Sturla Brandth Grovien’s cinematography.
And special mention must be made of Tamar-kali’s score, a splendid symphony of cello, piano, viola and voices.
SHIRLEY is a should see, surely.