THE MOVIE GUY — Fans of great acting should surely check out Shirley

Published 12:03 am Friday, June 5, 2020

Elisabeth Moss is having a great year.

Using the clout she gained from The Handmaid’s Tale, the actress has championed a series of female-centric films that allow her to really shine. The Invisible Man is the most successful of the bunch, but “Her Smell” was an acting tour de force, and this week sees the streaming release of Shirley.

The Shirley in the title refers to author Shirley Jackson who rose to fame with the publication of The Lottery in 1948, although Netflix viewers may also know her for their production of The Haunting of Hill House.

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She was known primarily as a writer of horror fiction, but the author also had a knack at exposing caustic female relationships in her work, something that is on prominent display in this new film.

Based on the novel by Susan Merrell, this is a biography that takes a lot of liberties with the truth about Jackson’s life. Moss plays the substance-abusing, agoraphobic author who is stuck at home in Vermont with her professor of a husband (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Things start to fall apart when the professor invites his assistant (Logan Lerman) and his wife (Odessa Young) to move in to their home. While the men are off doing manly things at the university, tension begins to simmer between the two women. Jackson is struggling with her latest book, while the younger woman bristles at being expected to serve as a housekeeper of sorts.

There is a perverse pleasure found in watching the manipulation between the two and wondering when somebody will break.

There are times when Shirley feels like a Virginia Woolf redo because Jackson and her husband take such nasty delight in baiting the younger couple. Exacerbating the conflict is the nagging thought that Jackson may also be going crazy, and who knows what might happen if she suddenly breaks.

Moss is superb in the title role, giving us a multifaceted character who lashes out as she struggles under the thumb of her dominating husband. Stuhlbarg and Young are also quite good, although Lerman is mostly forgotten in deference to the conflict between the central three characters.

This is a film that seems like a play because it’s set entirely in one house and is non-stop talking and angry looks. It’s not very cinematic, and it’s not all that much fun to watch, although there are a few moments of humor to keep things moving.

Truth be told, I didn’t enjoy watching the film, but I did love the actors and what they were able to do with this difficult drama. If you’re a fan of meaty stories and actors at the top of their games, you should surely check out Shirley on demand this weekend.

Shirley will begin streaming on demand June 5.

Movie reviews by Sean “The Movie Guy” McBride are published each week in The Port Arthur News and seen weekly on KFDM and Fox4. Sean welcomes your comments via email at