Expect the unexpected in this biopic about Shirley Jackson who died over 50 years ago.
She was a major writer in the American Gothic tradition, and a significant feminist, at a time when women had little control over their lives.
This film mirrors much of her own life. She said “I write of neuroses and fear and think if all my books were laid end to end it would be one long documentation of anxiety”.
Screenwriter Sarah Gubbins has adapted Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel for the screen. It is set mostly in the confines of a dimly lit, ivy covered house where Tamar-kali’s chilly musical score makes your spine tingle. It definitely passes the Bechdel Test.
Shirley (Elizabeth Moss, in a bravura performance, at the top of her game) lives in a home badly needing a housekeeper. Several have left, not able to deal with her temper and drinking habits. She struggles with agoraphobia, has not been out of the house for months, has writer’s block, and is struggling to pen a novel.
She is the faculty wife of Professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) who encourages a young, ambitious teaching assistant (Logan Lerman) and his newly pregnant wife Rose (Australian actor Odessa Young) to stay with them, free of charge, in return for Rose’s help in the house.
What follows is a disturbing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” scenario with a creepily lecherous and philandering Stanley, and blunt and abusive Shirley, duelling on a daily basis – while the young couple try to come to terms with their situation.
Director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) uses disconcerting close-ups, unexpected focus changes, filters and at times a hand-held camera. Sometimes she merges the characters to distort reality.
The film is definitely not for everyone. I found it original, unnerving, and fascinating. A biopic with a difference.
It was the winner of the US Dramatic Special Jury Award for Auteur Filmmaking – awarded for a film where individual style and control over all the elements of production give it a personal and unique story.
Now showing at Luna Leederville.
Watch the trailer…