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‘Shirley’ Film Review: Elisabeth Moss Has Monstrous Presence in Unconventional Drama

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Director Josephine Decker revives American genre writer Shirley Jackson (embodied by Elisabeth Moss) with a concoction of fact and magical realism
Pushed over a metaphorical cliff, the two nonconformists in Josephine Decker’s “Shirley” — her follow-up to the mind-bending “Madeline’s Madeline” — bond over the maddening submissiveness expected of them, which they both come to furiously abhor. Their strange alliance makes for a psychologically layered portrait of unapologetic womanhood that’s dangerously sensual and sumptuously rebellious.
The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, comes from a screenplay by Sarah Gubbins, which was adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’s biographical fiction novel. Decker revives American genre writer Shirley Jackson (embodied by Elisabeth Moss) with a concoction of fact and magical realism, which may frame the film as a radically more exciting cousin to Stephen Daldry’s Virginia Woolf-centered, triptych drama “The Hours.”
Sensorial waves are sent through our systems right from the drama’s opening frames via cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s hypnotic camerawork and ethereal lighting. For the characters, and our psyches, a thunder ripping through the sky seems to have the destructive potency of an unwanted touch, because the angles in the frame refuse to stay static.
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Mentally unable to set foot outside her home or find the flame of creativity, the reclusive Shirley has withdrawn from the world more than usual, reaffirming her reputation in rigid 1950s Virginia as a fear-inspiring writer, both for the darkness of her stories and for her disinterest in pleasing others. Nightmarish visions, paired with Tamar-kali’s playfully chilling score, create a disorienting effect that matches her inner state.

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