Director – Josephine Decker
Starring – Elizabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg
Films about writers are almost always terrible. GARY STEEL writes about one compelling exception which flouts all the rules.
I’ve never really warmed to Meryl Streep, but can understand what makes her such a versatile actor; her face is a mask that can morph to the specific demands of any role she plays. Elizabeth Moss has the makings of a 21st Century Streep with a ubiquitous presence on television and film.
Except for one thing: her visage is so distinctive that, having experienced her performing a certain part, it can be difficult accepting her in another. In the recent adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, especially, the camera clung so comprehensively to her facial features during the increasingly dreary television show’s three seasons that it’s now hard to see her in any other light.
Which is a shame, because she’s a fine actor, and on Shirley she gets plenty of opportunity to explore a complex and half-crazed character.
Set in the early 1950s, Shirley is ostensibly about the blurred lines an author treads between fiction and reality in their own lives during the creative process. Moss is Shirley, a celebrated short-form writer who, despite a slim grip on reality, embarks on a novelisation springing from a real story about a missing girl.
An ambitious young academic and his pregnant wife visit Shirley and her husband, an eccentric university professor, and become ensnared in his plans. They need a place to stay and he’s potentially a conduit to a life successful life on campus, so the dutiful wife quashes her ambitions to cook and is shoehorned into housekeeping and caring for the mentally ill Shirley.
The casting is superb, and Odessa Young is especially winning as Rose, the pretty victim in this odd dance of a movie. Michael Stuhlbarg as Shirley’s husband Fred manages to squeeze every nuance out of a complex, driven character who will do almost anything as the ultimate advocate for his wife’s talent.
Films about writers and writing are generally dismal (and sometimes laughable) affairs, and they often fall into farce as they stretch the limits of credulity in their attempt to cast light on what is essentially a boring life where not much happens. Writing is largely an interior activity and writers tend not to do too much except move around a room and sit at their desktops (or in this case, typewriters).
Shirley largely manages to avoid this trap. Rose becomes Shirley’s researcher in the case of the missing girl, and then she becomes the girl in Shirley’s hallucinogenic dream-state. The relationship between Shirley and Rose deepens while her husband Fred (played by the baby-faced Logan Lerman) is largely absent and (as it turns out) playing the field.
But it’s not just the acting or the story that makes Shirley worth a watch. The trippy camera-work (which is virtuosic but never intrusive) draws you into the peculiar psychosis that’s at work here, while the string-driven music by Tamar-kali is spare but thrillingly effective.
The subtext to this unusual story, however, is the repression of women and their creative spirit and true potential. The men in this story hold all the power and the deal Shirley has with her professor husband enables her talent but at a terrible price; one where she is considered a freak by society. It’s to the credit of the (largely female) team behind Shirley that this facet is explored with subtlety.
* Shirley opens in New Zealand on Thursday July 23 at independent NZ cinemas.