Elisabeth Moss’s fevered turn as American gothic novelist Shirley Jackson is the latest chapter in cinema’s tireless quest to dramatise the literary life
The writer generally gets a raw deal in the movies: alternately romanticised and patronised in films that will do just about anything to depict literary genius except actually show them writing. As a process, it’s not inherently cinematic; the best films on the subject try to slip some sense of the writer’s mind into their verbal and visual language.
Newly out on VOD platforms, Josephine Decker’s Shirley plays fast and loose with the facts around its subject, the midcentury American gothic spellbinder Shirley Jackson. Rather than offering any kind of reliable biographical portrait, it instead fashions Jackson’s unglamorous romantic life as the kind of suburban horror fiction she might herself have written. As interpreted in jittery, fevered style by Elisabeth Moss, Jackson becomes a kind of housebound witch with a typewriter for a cauldron, both antagonising her young academic lodgers and feeding off them creatively. I have reservations about its monstrous portraiture, but it works as an atmospheric evocation of her work’s ghoulish, stomach-tightening power.