Shirley Review – BFI London Film Festival 2020


After her impossible to miss performance in The Invisible Man earlier this year, Elisabeth Moss is back on our screens in new drama, Shirley.

Sticking with all things spooky, here she portrays real-life horror writer Shirley Jackson in an adaptation of the Susan Scarf Merrell novel of the same name.

The screenplay is written by Sarah Gubbins with Josephine Decker directing.

Decker sets the scene whilst Shirley is experiencing a period of writer’s block.

She and her husband Stanley, played by Michael Stuhlbarg are joined at their home by a young newlywed couple Fred and Rosie, portrayed by Logan Lerman and Odessa Young.

Fred is starting a new job at Bennington College where Stanley is a professor so the newlywed couple plan to stay with Shirley and Stanley until they find their own place.

With Fred busy at the college Rosie reluctantly takes on much of the household work and attempts to take close care of Shirley, and with these new faces about Shirley begins to write once again.

Writer’s Block


Credit: Curzon Artificial Eye

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The film begins well, introducing the core four characters intriguingly and impressively establishing the setup, ready for the narrative to really take hold of audiences.

However, after the initial pieces are put in place and Shirley begins work on her new novel the film’s narrative slowly unravels itself.

There are hints that a darker and more dramatic film than first anticipated is developing, encouraged by the often unnerving score courtesy of Tamar-kali, but this doesn’t ever amount to much.

Instead, Shirley chooses to juggle too many different things, confusing the flow of the film and constantly blurring the lines of what direction it is heading in.

Some viewers may thrive with this haphazard style of storytelling but many will struggle with gaining access to the seemingly scattered and unclear narrative.

Fantastic Four

shirley review

Credit: Curzon Artificial Eye

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So whilst some elements of the writing do raise barriers between the film and audiences the cast constantly counter this.

Their efforts most definitely lower said barriers, not completely, but at least enough to allow for some engagement for those who may find issue with the narrative.

Lerman gets the short end of the stick, playing the smallest part of the main quartet of performers but he still delivers.

Young, who plays his on-screen wife has much more to do and enjoys an engrossing chemistry with lead actress Moss.

Stuhlbarg initially feels like he’s reprising his role in Call Me by Your Name where he also plays a professor.

However, he quickly sheds any similarities to that role beyond occupation, contributing an unpredictable and layered performance.

It’s of no surprise though that it is the terrific performance by Moss as the title character which impresses the most.

Thriving as the centre of attention at parties but also hell-bent on staying in bed all day Moss deals with Shirley’s complex character with what appears to be considerable ease.

Interacting with her very talented co-stars Moss helps to complete the strong quad of central performances although there’s never a doubt as to who draws the majority of the spotlight.

Lost in Translation


Credit: Curzon Artificial Eye

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One part character study, one part drama and at times even veering into psychological thriller territory Shirley often feels lost in its own narrative.

It’s this lack of definition that will prevent it from being wholly accessible to wider audiences.

Despite this, with performances as strong as it has produced many will be able to look past any potential flaws and simply enjoy the quietly crazed company of its complex characters.

Shirley that alone makes it worth a look?

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