Del reviews ‘Shirley’

Image courtesy of Neon.

“Shirley” Starring Elizabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg and Logan Lerman. Directed by Josephine Decker. 107 minutes. Rated R.

Del’s take

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Thus begins “The Haunting of Hill House,” a perfect novel befitting that perfect paragraph, and now blessed by a perfect dramatic rendition of the author’s life, “Shirley,” both an elegant and quixotic peek behind the curtain enshrouding horror writer Shirley Jackson.

Yet “Shirley” is not so much about Jackson as how she is perceived through the eyes of the callow wife of an instructor student who has come to Bennington College, Vermont, to learn how to be a literature professor. The young couple take room and board with Jackson and her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, an established professor at the college, and it is from that launching point we discover the people, and the story, and the frailties of intellect and ego, especially as they are coupled with eccentric, seemingly frail yet ultimately powerful collective of personalities.

The physical structure of the movie is as dingbatty as its subject material, flitting from reality to flashback to daydream and wish-fulfillment – muzzy, out-of-focus sequences that provide insight into the thought processes of their selectively sighted muse. Likewise for the score, which flicks from folksy twang tunes with hidden stories to slithery, slinky dream themes suggestive of everything, from the narcotic haze from which Jackson reputedly penned her stories to her repressed lust for Rose, the female half of their tenant couple.

“Shirley” threatens to become “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” but backs away and wraps itself in something entirely different. Where it does resemble “Woolf” is in its quartet of actors and the quality of their performances. Elizabeth Moss is just stunning as Jackson, and if she isn’t rewarded with some kind of statuary, well, there is no justice. Equally stunning is Odessa Young as Professor Nemser’s wife, who arrives in the story innocent and eager to please, and leaves it with a knowing look and tic. Michael Stuhlbarg, who we last saw in “Call Me By Your Name,” is perfect as Jackson’s amoral husband, who is jealous of her talent and sets her up to fail, the covetous embodiment of the bromide, “Those who can’t do, teach.” Logan Lerman has the least screen time of the four but does a creditable job as the student professor who embraces the college monde a little too enthusiastically.

“Shirley” is for literature fans and movie fans, which means its audience will consist of a quiet few, those people against whom the silence lays steadily, as they walk, alone.

I rate it an A.

Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.