There’s a scene in Shirley that finds American author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), in a forest, goading her houseguest, Rose (Odessa Young), to eat a ‘death cap mushroom’. We’ll share it, she tells her, as the sexual tension builds. Is she inviting Rose into the next life or testing her boundaries? The tone is set for Josephine Decker’s feverish psychodrama.
We meet Jackson creatively blocked after the publication of her revered short story ‘The Lottery’. Agoraphobic, she scarcely leaves the home she shares with her husband, literary critic and college professor Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). Her process (smoking, drinking, ripping up papers) has been interrupted by the arrival of Stanley’s new research fellow Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose, his pregnant wife. Soon Rose is drawn into Shirley’s world – to the point of destruction.
Through all the film’s fictionalised, domestic delirium, Decker tells a story of female artistic power. Jackson was the main breadwinner in her home in the 1940s and ’50s when such a thing was almost unheard of. Her command of the gothic horror genre had Time magazine dubbing her ‘Virginia Werewolf’. The main focus, though, is on Jackson’s art, and Shirley is one of the best visualisations of the writing process ever captured on screen.
In cinemas Fri Oct 30.