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Laramie Movie Scope: Shirley

Sizzling visuals and acting, but slow and literary

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 4, 2020 – Visually edgy and fueled by Elizabeth Moss' sizzling performance as the abrasive, self-destructive, but brilliant author, Shirley Jackson (author of “The Haunting of Hill House” in 1959) this plodding film seems nonetheless more literary than cinematic.

This has been quite the year for Moss with her excellent performance as the abused wife in “The Invisible Man” along with her fine performance as a kind of literary witch in this film. The story is based on a novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell. Merrell's novel is a fictionalized speculation about events in the life of Shirley Jackson during the time period she was writing “Hangsaman” (a 1951 gothic novel).

This movie, directed by Josephine Decker, from a screenplay by Sarah Gubbins, is a biographical drama very loosely based on actual events. It is, what literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman (played by Michael Stuhlbarg of “The Post” in the movie) would call “derivative.” Stanley Edgar Hyman, a professor at Bennington College in Vermont, is Shirley's husband.

The story centers on the relationships between Shirley and her husband, and between Shirley and Rose Nemser (played by Odessa Young of “Assassination Nation”). Rose and her husband, Fred (Logan Lerman of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) appear first in the film, having a hot sex scene on a train while traveling to Bennington.

Fred hopes to get a teaching position at Bennington, while Rose, who is pregnant, is a student at the college. Rose accepts a job as maid and cook at Shirley's house in return for free room and board at the house. She agrees to this as a favor to Fred, who wants to advance his career by getting into Stanley's good graces.

Shirley's acid tongue infuriates Rose at first, but later the two develop a sexual attraction to each other. Rose becomes Shirley's muse and model for the late Paula Jean Welden (also played by Odessa Young) a woman who mysteriously disappeared. Shirley is writing a book, “Hangsaman,” which is loosely based on the life and disappearance of Welden.

Most of this story is set in Shirley's house and most of the interactions are among three main characters, Shirley, Rose and Stanley. Fred is the forgotten man in this romantic triangle. It feels like a one act play with no set changes.

The climax of the movie is ambiguous, along with the ending. If the movie had stuck with the ending that Shirley wrote in “Hangsaman” I would have preferred that. That could have at least partially rescued the movie for me, but instead, the ending is weak and unfocused. Overall, the story is not compelling, and the characters are unappealing.

The cinematography, by the award-winning Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, is very edgy, with unexpected closeups, brilliant color choices and inventive angles and setups. The look of the film is as lively as the story is sluggish. The acting, by the three main characters, is very strong. This movie rates a C.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff (no extra charges apply). I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2020 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at dalek three zero one nine at gmail dot com [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]