Shirley: Control, subjugation and a sexual game of cat and mouse

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Shirley is showing in cinemas nationwide and on Curzon Home Cinema from 30th October.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

What happens when you take the classic biopic and mix in elements of fantasy, fiction and psychological drama? The answer is the deliciously dark, enthralling and compelling Shirley, a film that dovetails the alcohol-fuelled genius of Shirley Jackson with a fictional young couple who are sucked into a devilish psychological game. Shirley has no intention of playing by the rules of the classic biopic, which is rather befitting of the real-life characters at its heart.

Josephine Decker threads her film with the horror of psychological selection and control as the naive and enthusiastic Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) become lab rats in the hands of Shirley (Elizabeth Moss) and Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg). Here the older couple’s intellectual gameplay is held within a haze of alcohol and tobacco as they mould the young couple into new people through a dark social experiment in literature, class and sexuality.


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In what feels like a homage to Bram Stokers Dracula, our story opens with Rose and her husband Fred sitting together on a steam train. Here the rhythmic click and clack of the locomotive are surrounded by feelings of expectation, intrigue and wonder as they head towards a new life in Vermont. The purpose of their journey is a golden opportunity for Fred to assist Shirley’s husband, Stanley, with his academic research, which may lead to a full-time position lecturing at the university.

On arrival, Rose and Fred are greeted warmly by Stanley, with Shirley remaining in the shadows. But it’s not long before Stanley proposes free board and lodging if Rose agrees to cook and clean the sprawling house after the housemaid quits. Rose duly agrees and is left in the house as Stanley takes Fred under his wing. However, as Fred becomes more distant from his now pregnant wife under the guidance of Stanley, Rose finds herself attracted and enthralled by the eccentricity and genius of the reclusive Shirley in a quasi-sexual game of cat and mouse.


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Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins wrap their tale of female conformity and social isolation in social horror as they unpick 50s female oppression before stitching it back together. Here the men at the heart of the story swim free in a sea of lies, promiscuity and privilege while the women are forced to defend their every move. However, the actions of Shirley and Stanley take Decker’s film into much darker realms as they play with their young subjects.

Led by the truly outstanding performances of Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young, Shirley is a deliciously dark tale of control, subjugation and sexuality that you can easily imagine Shirley Jackson herself endorsing.


Director:  Josephine Decker

Cast:  Elisabeth MossOdessa YoungMichael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman