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Well-Crafted Theft 

Shirley concocts a literary psychodrama from a multitude of familiar sources.

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At what point does nodding to a whole bunch of different influences become its own kind of originality? That's the intriguing question that might guide the experience of watching Shirley, as director Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins—adapting the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell—pull from a wide range of psychological drama forebears to build a portrait of creative madness.

At the center is Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), the real-life writer best known for creepy tales like "The Lottery" and The Haunting of Hill House, circa late 1940s/early 1950s as she lives in Vermont with her husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a literary critic and faculty member at Bennington College. This fictionalized account finds their isolated world disrupted by the arrival of Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), Stanley's new teaching assistant, along with Fred's pregnant wife Rose (Odessa Young), to live in Shirley and Stanley's home. And as Fred becomes focused on his academic career, Rose becomes focused on helping care for the volatile Shirley.

"Volatile" probably isn't quite the right mental-health terminology for whatever undiagnosed issues plague Shirley—Stanley refers to them with thinly-veiled frustration as "these ... bouts"—as she struggles alternately with agoraphobia, depression, writer's block and ultimately an obsession with the new project she pursues. Moss, not surprisingly, is dynamic as she digs into Shirley's mix of anxiety and a caustic sense of humor, although honestly after recent roles like Her Smell and The Invisible Man it would be refreshing to see Moss play a character who isn't plagued by emotional demons. She's also got a great foil in Odessa Young, who plays Rose as an open book of female sexual desire and curiosity during an era when such things aren't exactly encouraged.

Gender roles are really at the heart of Shirley, both in the relationships between Shirley and Rose and their respective husbands, and in the story Shirley is working on—a psychological thriller inspired by a missing Bennington coed, and which seems to be the stuff of Shirley Jackson's 1951 novel Hangsaman. As Shirely and Rose interact in ways that are at times playful, at times flirtatious, at times goading, the narrative explores the kind of female "hysteria" that's exacerbated by living in the shadow of a man's freedom—even, as in Shirley's case, when she's more famous than that man.

It is still a bit frustrating trying to sort through the many reference points that seem to be fighting for attention. What we've got is a little bit of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in its theater of recriminations involving unhappy couples, a little bit of The Shining in its claustrophobic portrait of a writer's breakdown, a little bit of Ken Russell's Gothic in the florid fictionalization of a literary work's creation, and even some of director Decker's previous feature, Madeline's Madeline, in suggesting the violation involved in using other people's lives for one's art. Shirley is always engaging and thought-provoking, even as it inspires complicated questions about the fine lines between inspiration and well-crafted theft.

Also New This Week
Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse
3 Stars

The first in a series of Exhibition on Film features at SLFSatHome.org in June, this 2016 documentary from director David Bickerstaff launches from the exhibition of the same name at the Royal Academy of Arts, highlighting works from the late-19th and early-20th century that took gardens as their subject. As you might expect from a film of this kind, it's likely to be of greatest interest to those who already have a fascination with art history, as the docents and scholars interviewed provide a framework for the represented artists within the movements of impressionism and modernism. Yet it also dips into intriguing historical tidbits about why gardens became such a common subject during this era—as recreational gardening became a more common hobby with a growing middle class and more imported plants—as well as the notion of gardens themselves as works of art. Though everyone will have their own limit as to when one more shot of bees humming around flowers or people looking at paintings becomes too much, this is a mostly satisfying way to get a little dose of cultural instruction. (NR)

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