Shirley BFI: London Film Festival Movie Review

Shirley BFI: London Film Festival Movie Review

Director: Josephine Decker

Screenplay: Sarah Gubbins

Based on the book by Susan Scary Merrell 

Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young and Logan Lerman

See more of our BFI London Film Festival Coverage here.


Arguably one of the most anticipated films of the festival, Shirley revels in its darkness. Not so much a typical biographical film but more an alt-biopic told in the style of one of Shirley Jackon’s gothic short stories. Rumours and speculation circled the “Haunting of Hill House” author Shirley Jackson, rumours of never leading the house and excess alcohol consumption. However, what Jackson created went beyond the bounds of not just horror fiction but propriety at the time.

Blonde women sat on striped couch alone at party
image from image.net

A young couple comes to stay 

We see first hand Moss’s portrayal of Jackson’s writing process following the introduction of a young couple, who are coming to stay with Jackson and her husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). Rose (Young) and Fred (Lerman) are recently married and full of a lust for life and love, that Shirley and Stanley seem to have lost. Whilst Fred and Stanley seemingly become fast friends, rubbing elbows at faculty parties and revelling in academia. 

However, it is between Shirley and Rose that something is beginning. Whether Shirley is actually interested in romance we are not sure, but what she does enjoy is pulling strings, antagonising and cutting people down. It is easy to see how she was not everyone’s favourite at the Holiday parties.

Moss shines in her portrayal of Shirley Jackson

Elisabeth Moss continues to deliver performance after performance and Shirley is no exception. She is haunting in her portrayal of a woman prone to bouts of depression and fits of rage. Moss’s performance really shines, she steals a lot of limelight and continues to cement her as one of the best actresses to date. Her complex performance isn’t warm or welcoming. She is difficult and glaringly lonely but all under a guise of detachment.

Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson in a bathtub reaching out
image from image.net

It is that detachment that may be the reason some audiences feel alienated or have trouble being fully drawn in. Which could be exactly what the performance was leaning towards. Genius is often cited as very close to madness and Moss encapsulates that perfectly. 

Shirley is a must-watch for fans who like to see behind the veil- as it were. It delivers a stylish, moody film that may stray from fact but keeps you none the less, on your toes and doubting everything. 

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