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Movie Review: 'Shirley' Is A Powerful Biopic

There are a number of different ways to do a biopic. You’ll often see the one where the filmmakers try to encompass most of a life or career, which usually leads to hitting the same beats over and over, and generally makes for a pretty middling movie. I prefer it when they take one short period in a person’s life and use that as a sort of window into who that person was.


Or—and this is my favorite—you could just totally make stuff up.


Shirley tells the story of horror writer Shirley Jackson and the period around 1950 when she was writing her novel Hangsaman. The movie is based on a book by Susan Scarf Merrell, and it plays very loosely with actual facts. I, personally, am barely familiar with Jackson, aside from her famous short story “The Lottery,” so I had no trouble with this, but I gather Jackson’s fans may balk a bit.


Shirley centers on a fictional young couple who come to live with Jackson and her professor husband during a time when Jackson seems to be struggling with serious depression, and maybe even a break with reality, which clearly is affecting her writing. The fictional woman, Rose, is maybe even more of a central character than Shirley herself, as she becomes wrapped up in a psychosexual drama involving Jackson, Jackson’s husband, and her own husband.


Director Josephine Decker has a visceral style that can also be uncomfortably disjointed, and while there were times I wished she’d get out of the way just a bit and let the brilliant screenplay shine, for the most part her approach is perfect for this kind of story. Decker is excellent at portraying the mental state of her characters through her filmmaking, especially when they’re troubled, and she and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins do a magnificent job detailing the massive frustrations of intelligent women treated as children by their husbands. Shirley has far different aims than does the usual laundry-list biopic, but it’s far, far more powerful for it.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.