Shirley review: Elisabeth Moss leads ‘unconventional biopic of horror icon’

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Shirley is no typical biopic.

Based on the fictionalised Shirley: A Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell and set in the 1950s, the film follows Fred (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rose (Odessa Young) when they come to live with Fred’s new boss, literary academic Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his wife, the up-and-coming horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss).

Being freshly married and much-in-love, Fred and Rose quickly find their bliss troubled as they are thrust into the toxic dynamic of the older married couple. Stanley is manipulative and easily-threatened, while Shirley rocks between depression and almost-sinister flurries of creative euphoria.

As cracks begin to show in Fred and Rose’s relationship, can their marriage survive the psychological warfare devised by Stanley and his genius wife Shirley?

Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young star in Shirley

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Casting aside what one might usually expect from a biographical film of a famous figure, the bold Madeline’s Madeline director Josephine Decker takes a much more concentrated yet less formulaic narrative and instead mixes nightmarish fantasy with torment and psychological pain.

Elisabeth Moss offers another startling performance in a career of which she has provided many. Moss makes Shirley a terrifying, pitiful, sympathetic, enjoyably devilish, yet still melancholic figure – a genius who is not easy to pin down in any way.

The actress' work in television as seen with Mad Men and The Handmaid's Tale, along with recent film roles in Her Smell and The Invisible Man, continue to prove how she is one of the best performers of her generation.

The actress is well-matched by Stuhlbarg who makes Stanley a charismatic but sadistic figure in their toxic yet well-matched marriage, while the younger pair of actors Lerman and Young are thoroughly believable as the lovers being torn apart.

Writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss, right) and her academic husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) play mind games with a young couple.

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The journey of Rose and her increasingly complicated friendship with Shirley also serves as one of the most rewarding strands of the film, with the scenes between Moss and Young carrying an unpredictable yet erotic allure.

Echoing the likes of Edward Albee's stellar work Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Shirley feels nasty yet perversely fun, and Decker’s almost ethereal filmmaking only add to the sense of impending doom much noted in Jackson’s own landmark horror works.

While its sometimes contemplative pacing and tendency to revel in the atmosphere may put some viewers off, Shirley is a twisted love letter to the literary genius at its centre and another ideal snow globe for Elisabeth Moss to work her magic.


Shirley in an unconventional and fictionalised biopic of a horror icon Shirley Jackson which features a wonderful performance fro the ever-great Elisabeth Moss and moody director by Josephine Decker.

Shirley was shown as part of BFI London Film Festival 2020 and is released in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on October 30, 2020.

What is your favourite role from Elisabeth Moss? Let us know in the comments below.