• 11 Jul - 17 Jul, 2020
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Reviews

As willfully unconventional as a literary portrait could possibly be, Madeline’s Madeline director Josephine Decker’s take on Shirley Jackson is a thrillingly perverse example of what happens when the shackles of biopic formula are cast aside. Based on Shirley: A Novel, the acclaimed book from Susan Scarf Merrell, Shirley tells of a fictitious dynamic, an imagined period where a younger couple moved in with Jackson and her husband, but weaves in known details about the reclusive horror of the writer’s life and personality. It’s a strange construction but one that feels fitting given what we know of her, a woman who found reality and the rules that came with it to be rather pedestrian. It’s as unusual a film as she was an author and one imagines she’d get a devious kick out of the dark places the film takes us to.

Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) lives with her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), a controlling bon vivant who both amuses and annoys but he cares for her when she’s in one of her many downward spirals, refusing to leave the house for months on end. Their rocky relationship is complicated further when Stanley’s new teaching assistant Fred (Logan Lerman) and wife Rose (Odessa Young), move into their home for a short period. Shirley is displeased with their presence but soon becomes fascinated with Rose, recognising a shared affinity for the macabre.

Rose’s initial attempts to charm Shirley are indelicately batted away but the pair slowly figure out a rhythm with the author teasing out a strangeness that Rose had been keeping under wraps while playing the role of a polite wife. Both women are living in a period, the late 50s, of restrictive gender expectations and under Shirley’s informal tutelage, Rose experiences a radical awakening.

But there’s a tragedy in Rose’s transformation for Shirley because even though in many ways, she has given up on performing the role of a subservient wife, she’s stuck with a boorish showboating husband who abuses their open marriage with endless local dalliances regardless of any embarrassment it might cause her. He’s also a drain on her financially and an insufferably self-serving critic of her work.

There’s a lot here to digest, a bitter cocktail with many confounding flavours and its abrasiveness will prove tough-going for some, especially those in search of a more polite and familiarly structured literary biopic. But for those willing to sink into the depths with Shirley, it’s a delicious journey down.