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Film / Shirley

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"What happens to all lost girls? They go mad."

Shirley is a 2020 biographical drama/Psychological Thriller directed by Josephine Decker (Madeline's Madeline). It premiered at Sundance before being picked up by Hulu for wide distribution later in the year.

Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) take in a young couple, Rose (Odessa Young) and her aspiring academic husband Fred (Logan Lerman). As Shirley writes her new novel - which would become Hangsaman (1951) - she draws her inspiration from a real-life disappearance of a student at the University of Bennington and her growing attraction to Rose.

For the unrelated 1849 novel by Charlotte Brontë, see here.


This film provides examples of:

  • Actor IS the Title Character: Elisabeth Moss IS Shirley.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Shirley. Although she is married to a man (Stanley), they are shown to be desperately unhappy, never have sex, and never even show any physical interest in each other. While she is upset by Stanley's other lovers, it's implied that she feels humiliated more than anything, and she repeatedly describes her love for and interest in other women, while also becoming obsessed with, and having romantic fantasises about, Rose.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: A lot of what Stanley does to Rose, especially kissing her, falls under sexual harassment and probably sexual assault. However, this film is set in the late 1940s, so Rose says nothing.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: Rose knows Stanley cheated on Shirley a lot, but she frames him for possibly cheating with the missing girl, Paula. Shirley, however, sees through this in a second.
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  • Hide Your Children: Shirley and Stanley had children by the time this film was set, but they are never shown onscreen. After Rose gives birth around three-quarters of the way through the film, unless she's carrying her child around (as she is in the climax), her baby will be somewhere but not commented on by anyone.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: As in real life, both Stanley and Shirley are writers, as is Fred.
  • Kick the Dog: Shirley reveals not only that Fred was cheating on Rose, but that he's probably been doing so since the beginning of the year.
  • Kubrick Stare: Shirley has one in the final scene while Stanley is commenting on her book.
  • No Ending: It's never answered what's going to happen to Fred and Rose's marriage, only that Shirley and Stanley are still together (which is a Foregone Conclusion). Will they get divorced? Will Rose resign herself to living like Shirley?
  • Pastiche: Of Shirley Jackson's own novels, with a lot of The Yellow Wallpaper in there. Two women are trapped in a house together like We Have Always Lived in the Castle. There's a lot of focus on cramped, interior spaces, similar to The Haunting of Hill House, as well as a Romantic Two-Girl Friendship that develops between Shirley and Rose, Rose is nearly Driven to Suicide on one of the rare scenes outside, and Shirley is portrayed as very agoraphobic. Meanwhile, Shirley convinces Rose to investigate the real-life disappearance that inspired Hangsaman (which she is also shown writing), and there are repeated scenes of Shirley dreaming that she is a witch and imagining various other religious rituals, which were also a major influence on The Lottery and several of Jackson's short stories.
  • Psycho Lesbian: Considering that she's married to a man, Shirley might be a Depraved Bisexual, but all her fantasies in the film are about women and she is portrayed as so mentally unwell that it isn't clear whether she's ever going to be coercive in real life towards Rose.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The book that Shirley writes. Stanley calls it "brilliant", but she's left emotionally distraught by it.
    Shirley: This one hurts more than the others.
  • Wham Line: "There is no such thing as the Shakespeare Society." Confirming that Fred has been cheating on Rose for months, if not since the opening, and Shirley knew all along.


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