Shirley – An enthralling and captivating trip into social psychology

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

What happens when you subvert the classic biopic by mixing in elements of fantasy, fiction and psychological drama? The answer is the deliciously dark, utterly enthralling and compelling Shirley. A film that dovetails the alcohol-fuelled, and tobacco-stained genius of Shirley Jackson with a fictional young couple. Both of whom, are sucked into the devilish psychological games of the horror writer and her husband, Stanley. In a film that has no intention of playing by the rules of the classic biopic. A rather befitting trait, considering the real-life characters at the heart of its story. With both Shirley and Stanley renowned for their sharp, laser-like wit and suspicion of others.

Just like the author’s famous novella The Lottery, Josephine Decker threads her film with the horror of selection and psychological control. Our naive and enthusiastic young couple Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) becoming mere lab rats in the hands of Shirley (Elizabeth Moss) and Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg). The older couples intellectual gameplay held firmly within a haze of alcohol, tobacco and arguments. The young couple slowly moulded into new people, in a dark social experiment wrapped in literature, class and sexuality.

In what feels like a homage to Bram Stokers Dracula, our story opens with Rose and husband Fred sitting together on a steam train. The rhythmic click and clack of the locomotive surrounded by feelings of expectation, intrigue and wonder as they head towards a new life in Vermont. The purpose of their journey a golden opportunity for Fred to assist Shirley’s husband Stanley with his academic research. The result of 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. And it’s not long before Stanley proposes free board and lodging if Rose agrees to cook and clean the sprawling house. The housemaid having quit due to the unstable, eccentric and volatile behaviour of his wife. The couple, duly agrees, with Rose 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 slowly attracted and enthralled by the eccentricity, and genius of the reclusive Shirley. In a quasi-sexual game of cat and mouse, where both women’s love of literature and learning converge. The result of which is an explosion of repressed female desires, wrapped in the writings of an author playing a far more dangerous and socially manipulative game.

Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins wrap their tale of female conformity and social isolation in horror-inspired drama. The patchwork quilt of 50s female oppression slowly unpicked before being stitched back together. While at the same time, the men at the heart of the film swim unrestricted in a sea of lies, promiscuity and privilege. The resulting messages of the film embedded in the subjugation of women. However, its the actions of Shirley and Stanley that take this core message into much darker realms. With both characters experimenting and playing with their young subjects in a game of social psychology.

Meanwhile, the enviable cast led by the truly outstanding performances of Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young joyously translates the complex themes at play. With Moss wrapping her performance in a mania that is both disturbing and hypnotic. Her scenes alongside Young bathed in an erotically charged need for self-expression and ruthless intelligence. The young, pregnant and naive house guest slowly wrapped in a cocoon of confusion, freedom and desire. While at the same time, the innocence of Lerman’s Fred is manipulated and transformed by the choreographed perspicacity of Stuhlbarg’s Stanley.

Some may struggle with the cocktail of themes at play in Decker’s film. Including the ambiguous ending, that relishes in leaving the viewer ruffled. But, Shirley is a deliciously dark take on the traditional biopic. One that you can easily imagine Shirley Jackson herself delightfully endorsing.


Director:  Josephine Decker

Cast:  Elisabeth MossOdessa YoungMichael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman


Elisabeth Moss also stars in The Invisible Man

Michael Stuhlbarg also stars in Call Me By Your Name

Logan Lerman also stars in Hunters