Shirley review: Don’t expect any Hill House references

Shirley starring Elisabeth Moss is a new movie now streaming on Hulu

Are you a fan of Shirley Jackson’s work? If you answered “yes,” then Shirley, a new movie that’s now streaming on Hulu, may interest you.

However, if you’re expecting it to be a biopic about the author’s life, it’s not. It’s based on the fiction book, Shirley: A Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell.

Likewise, you’ll be disappointed if you’re expecting it to reveal any insights into the creation of her acclaimed book, The Haunting of Hill House, which Netflix adapted into a hit series of the same name.

What is Shirley?

Shirley is a — Well, for me, it’s hard to classify.

I can’t label it as a slow burn because there was no climactic final moment.

Vulture labeled it as a “woozy portrait of an underappreciated writer.”

“Woozy” is an interesting word choice. Shirley, the character, does spend most of the movie in an altered state of one manner or another, either from excessive drinking or grappling with agoraphobia.

I found the movie a swirling, indecisive, hodgepodge of genres.

Was it a love story? A mystery that might morph into a 1940s noire-ish suspense story? An exploration and statement on feminist issues? A coming-out movie?

For me, it was a confusing combo of all of the above.

Just when I thought it might get good and become a suspenseful film about her philandering husband’s connection –and possible involvement– in the disappearance of a missing college student, it abruptly abandoned that plotline for another. And then another, until I found myself wondering not only where the movie was headed, but when it would be over.

Does Shirley have any redeeming qualities?

I wasn’t a fan of the plot or lack thereof. If you prefer character-driven movies, Shirley might appeal to you.

Also, if you’re a fan of Elisabeth Moss, she once again nails it. She was the other reason I wanted to see this movie.

However, I also found her performance distracting because it kept reminding me of The Handmaid’s Tale. Moss as the title character Shirley is nowhere near as likable as June, though.

In fact, some of the other characters, situations, and even the setting also reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale. Even though Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Shirley’s husband, Stanley Hyman, doesn’t look anything like Bradley Whitford’s Joseph Lawrence in The Handmaid’s Tale, something about his voice and certain mannerisms brought him to mind anyway.

Plus, Shirley and The Handmaid’s Tale share many similar themes, including motherhood and women’s rights.

But I digress. There is no faulting the acting. In addition to Moss and Stuhlbarg, the newlyweds, played by Odessa Young in a dual role as Rose Nemser and Paula and Logan Lerman as her husband Fred Nemser, offer a naive, sympathetic element until Shirley and her husband passively corrupt them.

Another thing I liked about the movie was the music. None of it was left to chance. Not that movie music ever is, but every song perfectly enhanced its scene’s moment and evoked the era’s atmosphere.


Overall, I wasn’t necessarily hoping for something scarier, but maybe someone less scary. Shirley Jackson was portrayed as a bit of a monster, or maybe hag would be a better word. Because she wasn’t portrayed very kindly, and since this wasn’t a biopic, it left me wondering what she was really like.

Part of my interest in Shirley was hoping I’d understand her better. She’s an enigma to me because I loved her short story, The Lottery, but I’ve never liked The Haunting of Hill House. Not the first time I read it in my teens, and not again when I read it ahead of the premiere of the Netflix series. I, however, loved Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of it. (Granted, he made some generous enhancements and changes.)

Others seem to like both the book and the series. I was hoping Shirley would fill in something I was missing so I could better appreciate it. But, nope. Instead, I’m left with more questions.

Did they ever find Paula, the missing college girl in the movie? Was there a real missing girl that inspired Jackson’s book, Hangsaman? Besides “The Lottery,” that’s the work most talked about.

Would I like Hangsaman better than The Haunting of Hill House? What Jackson really as unstable and as tormented as she was portrayed in Shirley?

If anyone ever does make a biopic about her, maybe I’ll get the answers. For now, I have to live with the fact that like with her The Haunting of Hill House, I also seem to be in the minority of those who weren’t impressed with Shirley.

You can watch the film with your Hulu subscription!

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