Actor Odessa Young goes head-to-head with the star in this week’s gripping gothic biopic Shirley.
Actor Odessa Young goes head-to-head with the star in this week’s gripping gothic biopic Shirley.

Elisabeth Moss scarily good in gothic biopic

RISING Sydney actor Odessa Young goes head-to-head with an outstanding Elizabeth Moss in this week's gripping new bio-pic.

 

SHIRLEY

Three stars

Director: Josephine Decker

Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg

Rating: M

Running time: 107 minutes

Verdict A bravura performance from Moss

Elisabeth Moss holds nothing back in her fascinating portrayal of US horror writer Shirley Jackson. Even in a career that has plumbed the depths of human misery (The Handmaid's Tale, Top of the Lake, The Invisible Man), this performance stands out.

Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young in Shirley.
Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young in Shirley.

Monstrously manipulative, cripplingly insecure, Moss's agoraphobic author has a mind so sharp it wounds anybody who comes too close.

During a rare outing to a faculty party, one of the guests dares to ask Jackson what she's working on now.

"A little novella called none of your goddam business," she snaps.

When she is "on", Jackson is savagely charismatic. When she's "off", she's a lumpy, frumpy emotional void.

But even when her character is at her most unsympathetic, Moss manages to convey the pain and vulnerability underneath.

Elisabeth Moss as writer Shirley Jackson.
Elisabeth Moss as writer Shirley Jackson.

It's a tough act to follow, but Sydney actor Odessa Young (The Daughter) has got what it takes.

She matches Moss's literary bloodsucker with a disturbingly unpredictable characterisation of an unsuspecting artist's muse, never once plumping for the obvious choice.

Michael Stuhlbarg is terrific, too, as Jackson's egotistical, philanderer of a husband, Stanley Hyman, a professor at Bennington College in Vermont.

Unfortunately, Shirley's screenplay isn't nearly as evolved as the performances.

The filmmakers have set out to make a biopic in the style of one of Jackson's own stories, but they lack their subject's technical skills.

This fictionalised account of a relatively brief period in the writer's life, based on Susan Scarf Merrell's novel, explores what happens when a young couple comes to stay, upsetting Jackson's obsessive routine.

It's Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? on some kind of hallucinogenic substance.

Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) has been hired as the professor's assistant.

Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg in Shirley.
Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg in Shirley.

His wife, Rose (Young), is cornered into the role of housekeeper and unofficial nursemaid to Jackson, who is suffering from a debilitating bout of depression as well as writer's block.

While their hot-housed relationship feeds Jackson's creative process, the missing girl in her novel and Rose Nemser start to morph.

Director Josephine Decker hints at the suggestion that Hyman might actually have selected the young woman to be Jackson's literary plaything.

Shirley examines the fate of intelligent, ambitious women who didn't fit in through the lens of a Gothic 50s melodrama.

Decker evokes a powerful sense of threat and menace but the film's feverish second act is muddled and confused.

Worth seeing for Moss's performance alone.

Shirley opens July 9

A WHITE, WHITE DAY

Three and a half stars

Director: Hlynur Palmason

Starring: Ingvar Sigurdsson, Ida Mekkin Hlynsdottir

Rating: M

Running time: 109 minutes

Verdict Moody Nordic revenge thriller

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief don't unfold in any particular order, but the off-duty police chief at the heart of this Icelandic thriller is definitely stuck on anger.

Perhaps because of his emotional obstinacy, an early, combative exchange with his psychologist feels more like an interrogation than a therapy session.

Identifying as a father, grandfather, widower and cop - not necessarily in that order - Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurdsson) has lost his bearings since the death of his wife, who we eventually understand to have been the driver of a car that fails to take a bend on a fog-shrouded mountain pass in the film's disturbingly economical opening sequence.

Ingvar Sigurdsson and Ida Mekkin Hlynsdottir in A White, White Day.
Ingvar Sigurdsson and Ida Mekkin Hlynsdottir in A White, White Day.

Good with his hands, Ingimundur occupies his days with manual labour - building a house by a lake for his daughter and granddaughter, with whom he shares a special bond.

Played with fierce honesty by Ida Mekkin Hlynsdottir, Salka is the sort of unaffected nine-year-old who will stun a fish by banging its head against the table one minute and play a haunting piece of Schumann on the piano the next.

But even though he's surrounded by a close extended family, Ingimundur is alone and isolated in his despair.

His emotional state is reflected in the spectacularly bleak landscape he inhabits - captured here in all its shapeshifting moodiness by cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff.

A disintegrating shoe here, a stranger's library card there … director Hlynur Palmason leaves it up to his audience to assemble the pieces of this Nordic jigsaw puzzle.

Ingvar Sigurdsson is a cop tortured by suspicion and grief.
Ingvar Sigurdsson is a cop tortured by suspicion and grief.

Especially when it becomes increasingly apparent that his protagonist isn't seeing straight.

Ingimndur's nagging suspicion that his wife had been having an affair takes solid shape when he unpacks a box of her possessions

The name of a man he has never met provides the necessary scapegoat for his existential rage.

A White, White Day cleverly uses the signposts of a conventional revenge drama to explore the inner workings of a man in crisis.

But Palmason unexpectedly fumbles the ball in the closing sequence.

When Ingimundur's wife finally appears to him - the film's title refers to the bleached-out conditions that allow the dead to talking to the living - she takes a surprisingly corporeal form.

Having only seen tantalising glimpses of her up till now, the full-frontal nude shot is strangely jarring; a striking image of male objectification in the face of Ingimundur's three-dimensional grief.

At best, it's a clumsy denouement to what has been, up until now, a rich and nuanced film.

A White, White Day screens at Palace Cinemas from June 9. Advance previews this weekend

ALSO SHOWING

LOVE SARAH

(M) 98 minutes

Nineteen-year-old Clarissa (Shannon Tarbet) is determined to fulfil her late mother's dream of opening a bakery in London's Notting Hill. To this end, she enlists the help of her estranged grandmother - Celia Imrie, who refuses to be upstaged by the giant macarons and golden eclairs - and her mother's best friend (Shelley Conn). A sweet, sticky celebration of the healing power of female friendship

Now screening at selected cinemas.

Shelley Conn, Celia Imrie and Shannon Tarbet in Love Sarah.
Shelley Conn, Celia Imrie and Shannon Tarbet in Love Sarah.

ROMANTIC ROAD

(PG) 81 minutes

An eccentric, grey-haired English couple decide to drive their battered 1936 Rolls Royce across India - against all sensible advice. Documentary-maker Oliver McGarvey's real-life road movie charts Rupert and Jan Grey's 8000km journey from Mumbai to Dhakar as they navigate bureaucratic red tape and tribal conflict as well as bone-rattling dirty roads.

Now screening at selected cinemas.

THE BOOKSELLERS

(PG) 95 minutes

Don't judge an antiquarian bookseller by his or her battered cover. Director D.W. Young introduces us to a lively bunch of obsessives, misfits and intellectuals in this engaging documentary, which takes us behind-the-scenes of a rarefied subculture. At once a celebration of/and a eulogy for a vanishing breed, The Booksellers chart the rise and fall of Book Row, on New York's Fourth Street, in the age of the internet. Today, only one store remains.

Now screening at selected cinemas.

Originally published as Elisabeth Moss scarily good in gothic biopic


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