Michael Stuhlbarg elevates everything he’s in—a fact once again confirmed by Shirley, an excellent new biographical film about The Haunting of Hill House writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) from Madeline’s Madeline director Josephine Decker.
As Jackson’s husband Stanley Edgar Hyman, an esteemed critic and professor at Vermont’s Bennington College, Stuhlbarg exudes formidable intellect, sharp wit, daunting imperiousness, and a unique mixture of staunch loyalty and brazen unfaithfulness, energizing a marital dynamic that’s further complicated by the couple’s decision to welcome two boarders—aspiring academic Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rose (Odessa Young)—into their home. Their crowded household is soon ripe with combustible hothouse passions, as the women form an uneasy bond while contending with everyday sexist indignities at the hands of their ambitious, and alternately kind and callous, male partners.
Like the two movies for which he’s arguably best known—2009’s A Serious Man (his breakout role) and 2017’s Call Me By Your Name—Shirley is an opportunity for the 51-year-old Stuhlbarg to play a learned scholar, as well as to demonstrate the impressive versatility that’s made him one of Hollywood’s most sought-after character actors. Both charming and cruel, demanding and lenient, self-interested and compassionate, his Hyman contains fascinating layers that are only slowly revealed as Decker’s dreamy, expressionistic drama unfolds. A canny, complex performance that never turns out to be quite what one expects, it’s yet another feather in the cap of the acclaimed artist, who since bursting onto the film scene more than a decade ago has amassed a varied resume (from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Lincoln to Steve Jobs, Arrival and The Shape of Water) which rivals that of any actor working today.
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