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Shirley

In many ways new ground for director Josephine Decker, Shirley is also unmistakably hers, exploring unspeakable horror and strained man-woman interactions which conjure spectres.

Shirley film still

One of my favourite films of recent years is Madeline’s Madeline, a beautiful, spooky and cruel film about a young actor coming of age in New York City. It's both hazy and hard-edged, with dreamy soft-focus photography and a series of spiky improvisational performances from its main players. For its director, Josephine Decker, it felt like a culmination of groundwork laid in the psychodramas Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.

Shirley, her latest, is in many ways new ground for Decker. It’s the first of her features working from someone else’s screenplay, Sarah Gubbins’s adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel. Ashley Connor, the cinematographer responsible for the astonishing, woozy dreamscapes of the previous films, has made way for Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, who shot the 2015 single-take thriller Victoria. And it has a cast of established, well-known actors, headed up by Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson.

Jackson, of course, is a real person, the author of a number of horror novels, perhaps most famously The Haunting of Hill House. But Shirley is not at all a biopic. Instead, it tells the fictional story of a young, buttoned-up couple (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) moving into the home of Jackson and her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). Beginning work on her novel Hangsaman, Shirley is a genius and a petulant alcoholic; Hyman is gregarious and erudite, but also a tyrant and a creep.

Despite the big names, the period setting and the higher budget, it's unmistakably a Josephine Decker film. The camera swims up to the character’s faces, capturing them in dissected sections amid unintelligible blur, or it focuses with sudden, painful sharpness on a tiny detail, a bit of domestic clutter turned sinister.

Without there being any ghosts or spirits, the pervading atmosphere is one of unsettling, unspeakable horror. It's very much the descendant of Decker’s first feature, the witchy folk-horror Butter on the Latch. As in that film, it's the interactions between flesh-and-blood humans - and especially between women and men - that conjure spectres, but it's also in those interactions that women can find a kind of solidarity with one another against male cruelty.

Jackson’s novel is about a real-life woman who went missing after meeting a man in the woods near her college. She knows this woman, she says, as she knows all women that have been mistreated by men. Shirley, too, is a fiction about a real woman, clearly aiming - and I think succeeding - at a similar identification beyond biographical fact. Decker’s mix of experimentalism and organic horror is its perfect medium: strange, scary and liberating.

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