Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/05/20 06:33:17

"The Lovely House"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Shirley” tells the story of an innocent young woman who is manipulated by a couple of deceitful men into becoming the caretaker of a woman who may not technically be a witch but who is definitely an alcoholic, in the throes of some form of mental illness and is looked upon with a combination of suspicion and fear by the rest of the small town where she resides. Unexpectedly, the woman and her charge find some degree of common ground but that may not be enough to prevent the younger couple to succumb to the same sort of malignancy that has affect the relationship of the older pair as the four live together amidst a rambling old farmhouse that is practically a character in its own right. Oh yeah, at least a couple of these characters are also haunted to some extent by the spirit of a young woman who disappeared from town a couple of years earlier and who has not been heard from ever since. Those of you with a pronounced literary bent might even think that the premise suggests the work of Shirley Jackson, the author of such acclaimed works as “The Lottery” and “The Haunting of Hill House.” In fact, not only does the Shirley of the title refer to Jackson herself but she is one of the key characters, though the film as a whole is closer to one of those oddball historical fantasias that Ken Russell used to crank out back in the day than anything resembling a standard-issue biopic.

As the film opens, young married couple Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) are taking the train up to Bennington, Vermont, where Fred is going to be working as a teaching assistant to Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a gregarious professor who also happens to be married to the controversial and largely reclusive author Shirley Jackson (Elizabeth Moss). In fact, Rose and Fred have been invited to stay with Stanley and Shirley for a few days until they can sort out getting a place of their own. Rose is an enormous admirer of Shirley’s writing but their first meeting does not go auspiciously—Shirley not only lays out it no uncertain terms that Rose and her husband are not especially welcome but instantly intuits that Rose is pregnant. Rose is appalled and wants to leave but before that can happen, she is buttonholed by a “request” from Stanley—since their housekeeper just quit, would it be possible for Rose to maybe set aside the classes she is taking to take over those duties, which, of course, include keeping an eye on Shirley, in exchange for room and board? Of course, she does not want to but Fred, looking for any excuse to get in good with Stanley as a way of advancing his own position, convinces her to do it.

Inevitably, it is rough riding at first—it only takes a few of Shirley’s sharp words to complete decimate the quartet’s first dinner together—but as time goes by, an uneasy rapprochement develops between the two as Rose begins to recognize and understand the pain, frustration and sense of isolation that Shirley covers up with her barbs and booze and literary gifts. Her sense of solidarity with Shirley grows to the point where she is even tasked with helping her do research for her new book, which has been inspired by the story of a female student at the college who vanished a couple of years earlier. This development does not sit well with Stanley, who is both possessive and jealous of his wife’s talent and is resentful that someone else has been allowed into the inner circle to which he had previously been the only member. This is hardly his only fault—he blatantly cheats on his wife practically in front of her face, he goes out of his way to denigrate anyone that he feels is a threat and cruelly strings Fred along with promises of recommending him for tenure that he has no intention of keeping. His bad habits soon begin to rub off on Fred and before long, he and Rose essentially transform into younger versions of their hosts—Fred drinking and screwing around with an inflated sense of self and Rose searching for some kind of outlet to transform her feelings of resentment and unhappiness into something noteworthy.

Adapted from a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, “Shirley” was directed by Josephine Decker, whose previous film, “Madeline’s Madeline” was one of the very best films of 2018. Like that earlier effort, this one deals with such subjects as the artistic process, mental illness, societal expectations and power dynamics that examine the thin line between collaboration and exploitation. Decker also once again, in collaboration with cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen, employs a bold visual style that utilizes a constantly moving camera and any number of stylistic tricks to suggest the frenzied mindset of Shirley and, to a lesser extent, Rose. The results are bold and compelling, to be certain, but there is a certain degree of familiarity to some of the elements in Sarah Gubbins’s screenplay that keeps it from completely breaking free into its own thing. For starters, no matter how hard the film tries to avoid it, a narrative involving two academic couples—one older and one younger—engaging in endless drunken and barb-filled conversations is going to raise inevitable comparisons to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” that it can’t help but come out of on the losing end. For another, the film, like “Madeline’s Madeline,” deals to an extent with the potentially dangerous conceit that mental instability is almost a requirement for anyone hoping to create great art. While “Madeline’s Madeline” at least made an effort to grapple with the implications of that notion, this one merely presents it as a given and nothing more.

The key to the success of “Madeline’s Madeline” was the stunning turn by Helena Howard in what proved to be one of the very best performances by any actor in the last decade or so—one even more surprising because of the fact that Howard was a complete newcomer delivering her first screen performance. “Shirley,” on the other hand, is anchored by two fairly spellbinding performances that help make some of the more dramatically shaky material work. The one that probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise is the one from Moss, who has been on such an astonishing hot streak over the last few years that her bold and full-throttle work as Shirley, one that expertly manages to find the pain and loneliness just beneath her brittle surface without delving into sentimentality, that there is a real danger that even those who admire her work deeply may wind up taking it a bit for granted. The bigger surprise is the performance from comparative newcomer Young, whom I know I have seen before in the past but whose previous credits I admit I had to look up. The role of Rose is really the center of the film and clearly its most complex and complicated part and Young nails every aspect of this young woman trying to figure out who she is while stuck in a maelstrom of wild emotions. More impressively, she goes toe-to-toe with Moss in charged scenes throughout the film and winds up coming across with the more compelling turn. As for the male side of this battle of the sexes, Stuhlbarg turns in his liveliest work since “A Serious Man” as the initially charming and eventually repulsive Stanley, a type that anyone who has spent more than a little time on a typical college campus will recognize immediately. As Fred, Lerman has the least flashy and interesting of the four lead roles but he also perfectly embodies another all-too-recognizable type—the overly ambitious type who tries to come across as laid-back and easy-going but who will go to appalling lengths to get what he thinks he deserves and, once acquired, to keep it.

Like its title character, “Shirley” is flawed, flamboyant, often fascinating and occasionally frustrating—sometimes all at once. It has enormous ambitions that it doesn’t always quite live up to and those who admired “Madeline’s Madeline” as much as I did are likely to consider this follow-up from Decker to be a slight disappointment in comparison to that unqualified triumph. That said, as a dark comedy of ill manners complete with side tours into literary appreciation and outright freakiness, it makes for an intriguing viewing experience that is both complicated and largely rewarding. Best of all, it should inspire most of those who see it to go off and read (or reread) the works of Shirley Jackson so that they can get a real sense of what all the fuss was about.

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