Most biopics or character studies have the central character as the narrator in the movie. This one, however, does not. According to me, the narrator was Rosie and it was her journey understanding Shirley what we were meant to experience. There could be many reasons for this. One could be to keep Shirley a slight mystery. Someone you can’t quite fully understand but just admire. Another could be because we aren’t meant to sympathize with someone as mentally disturbed as her. This is what makes the movie unconventional in very interesting ways.
Using someone else as the narrator, the movie talks much beyond the scope of this prolific horror writer. Someone who very clearly suffered from anxiety, panic attacks, a lack of empathy, and just awfully terrible manners. The movie tries to comment on marriage and how relationships can at times exist merely because of enormous dependence on someone. All four characters feel dependent on someone else for their happiness. But the ones that realize that and are fully aware are the ones that come out strong by the end.
All four actors give strong performances and do exactly what is demanded. But one actor just shines beyond anyone else. Elizabeth Moss, in my opinion, gives her career-best performance. A performance that is consistent, edgy, and shows versatility to an extent she as never before. She grabs your attention from her very first appearance and is a constant thrill to watch. Be it when she’s humiliating someone or is having one of her breakdowns.
The film has been shot with immense focus on the actor’s faces emphasizing their emotions at every second. Nearly every scene is a character learning and growing because of someone else and this, I thought, was a great decision. The score is also very tense but minimalistic with emphasis on string instruments to pull off some very uneasy moments. The only major problem with the movie is that it wants to be so much more than just Shirley. It at times loses focus and forgets what it wants to talk about. It tries to take a lot on its plate at a runtime of just 107 minutes.
Shirley (2020) is Elizabeth Moss at her best portraying an apathetic woman that much like her literary works suffered from inner demons like anxiety, depression, and her declining health. Despite the movie losing its way occasionally, it is a very strong unconventional biopic that is about much more than its titular character.
Watch the movie’s Q&A at the Sundance World Premiere, here.