Shirley,” the new film loosely based on the life of writer Shirley Jackson, starts off as if it’s going to be a riff on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) and Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) live in a big two-story home in Bennington, Vt., and they’re welcoming guests to a rowdy party. Stanley is an English professor at Bennington College who thinks he’s quite amusing, and Shirley is a hard-drinking misanthrope who has just published what was then considered to be the most notorious short story in New Yorker history, “The Lottery.” She’s agoraphobic and not enjoying the party at all, hurling insults at her husband and anyone else who gets on her nerves.
Two guests arrive at the doorstep. They are Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young). Fred has finished his dissertation, and he and his wife are to be guests of the warring couple for a few days, before Fred begins helping Stanley with his teaching chores.
Rose is both repelled and attracted to Shirley, seeing her as something of a monster but also as a possible brilliant mentor. Fred sees this as a big chance for him career-wise, and he’s more than willing to suck up to Stanley.
The day after the party, Stanley makes an outrageous suggestion to Rose, who wants to monitor classes and learn while she’s at Bennington. He tells Rose that the house is a mess and that their housekeeper and cook have quit — and that if Rose will take care of the house and monitor the cantankerous Shirley, then she and Fred can stay at the home indefinitely, with free room and board.
Fred, of course, acts like it’s up to Rose, but she knows how the cards lie. It’s the 1950s, and it’s a sexist world, and she is supposed to be the dutiful wife. So, Rose sets about cleaning the kitchen and cooking and making tentative overtures to Shirley, who spends most of her time in bed.
On the evening of the first meal cooked by Rose, Stanley goes to Shirley’s bedroom and pleads for her to come down to dinner. She resists, saying, “It’s going to be so dull.” To which Stanley replies, “Well, I didn’t ask you to behave at the table.”
So the naive young couple will be the mice to Shirley’s cat. Shirley quickly suspects that Rose is pregnant and that she and Fred had a hurried marriage. Shirley is correct. Rose flees the dinner table in tears. Fred tries to comfort her back in their bedroom.
But a funny thing happens as the uncomfortable situation begins to play out. Shirley sees something of herself in Rose. She knows that Rose is suffering and that she shares in Shirley’s sense of victimhood and loneliness. And a feminist bond begins to form between the two, as Shirley realizes Fred is a jerk, just like Stanley.
Shirley even starts to comfort Rose about her pregnancy. “Let’s pray for a boy,” she tells Rose. “The world is too cruel for girls.”
And Rose, who arrived looking like the epitome of good grooming, begins to let her hair get straggly, just like Shirley’s.
In her writing, Shirley has become obsessed with a young woman who attended Bennington and disappeared mysteriously. It’s obvious that Shirley identifies with the mystery woman, and she has begun to write a novel about her. As fans of Jackson’s fictions know, this will become the novel “Hangsaman.”
All of this plays out over months of working — and the growing bond between Shirley and Rose. At one point, Stanley wonders whether Shirley and Rose are sleeping together. And, indeed, there are overtones of sexual attraction between the two.
Screenwriter Sarah Gubbins, working from the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, says the film is not an attempt at biography. And, indeed, the film omits the fact that Shirley and Stanley had four children together. Instead, Gubbins says that her Shirley has been “drawn from the archeology of her writing, the voice present in all her novels, shorts stories and the hundreds of letters between herself and Stanley archived in the Library of Congress.”
Director Josephine Decker says that she remembers “reading some critic or biographer noting that Shirley wasn’t a political writer.” Then she points out that Jackson “battled racism, classism and sexism through the unusual, the psychological, the manipulative rhythms of the subconscious.”
If you’re beginning to notice a theme here, it’s this: This movie focuses on women. It is written and directed by women. And it is about what Shirley, at one point, calls “lonely girls who can’t make the world see them.”
That’s true in the novel “Hangsaman,” and it is beautifully blended into the story of “Shirley.”
Jackson fans will surely appreciate this.
“Shirley” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It is currently available to watch on demand at various sites, including neonrated.com.
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman
Running time: 107 minutes