Film reviews: Shirley | Borat | The Painter and the Thief | His House | Relic

Elisabeth Moss digs deep to portray the celebrated American horror writer Shirley Jackson in Josephine Decker’s fictionalised pseudo-biopic


Shirley (15) *****

Borat: Subsequent Movie Film (15) ****

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The Painter and the Thief (15) ****

Elisabeth Moss as horror writer Shirley Jackson

His House (15) ***

Relic (15) ***

After the creative breakthrough of her previous film Madeline’s Madeline, US filmmaker Josephine Decker confirms her status as one of the most daring and inventive directors out there with Shirley, a strange, fictionalised, pseudo-biopic of the famed horror writer Shirley Jackson, author of The Haunting of Hill House and numerous gleefully twisted short stories. Starring Elisabeth Moss as Jackson, the film uses the writing of Jackson’s second novel, Hangsaman (first published in 1951), as a loose framework for an outré psychological portrait of the writer that’s as unhinged as some of her stories. What’s fact and fiction here is kept deliberately ambiguous as Shirley bonds with Rose (Odessa Young), the young housewife of an ambitious but dull academic (Logan Lerman) employed as an assistant to Shirley’s own husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), portrayed here as a vigorously intellectual and libidinous letch who invites the young couple to live with them, ostensibly so Rose can cook, clean and take care of the agoraphobic Shirley. Decker and her cast have a lot of fun with this weird domestic arrangement, revelling in the boho mischievousness of Shirley’s world and the darker undercurrents of the surrounding college town of Bennington that inspires her writing.

Moss is especially great as she digs deep to explore the way Jackson’s chosen mode of artistic expression teases out Shirley’s own understanding of the insecurities that have kept her tethered to the domineering Stanley. But it’s also about the plight of smart women forced into a state of intellectual invisibility by the retrograde attitudes of the times and the way the film repeatedly switches perspective between Shirley and Rose as their lives converge and diverge plays like a subtle acknowledgment of the “schizophrenic split” that will eventually be identified by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. Working from an internalised script from Sarah Gubbins, Decker trusts us to intuit the connections between Jackson’s experiences and her work, and she brings her subject to life with all the gnarly texture of one of Jackson’s stories. Boasting Martin Scorsese as an executive producer, this is a step up in scale for Decker; happily she’s using that scale to expand the parameters of what a film like this can be.

The Painter and the Thief

In Borat: Subsequent Movie Film, Sacha Baron Cohen’s greatest creation returns for a belated sequel to show how the rampant narcissism and idiocy that the first film did such deft and hilarious job of exposing has become the dangerous norm in Trump’s America. Though the Rudy Giuliani interview that brings the new film to a close has already been exhaustively analysed and commented upon since its release last week, the film itself remains a valuable and at times very funny take-down of the willful ignorance and intolerance coursing through all levels of American society. It also boasts a remarkable, star-making performance from Bulgarian actor Maria Bakalova as Borat’s 15-year old daughter. Indeed it’s Bakalova – posing as a conservative TV journalist – who takes on Giuliani. The nerves of steel she displays are as astonishing as her increasingly creepy encounter is disturbing.

The restorative power of art is explored in all kinds of incredible ways in The Painter and The Thief, Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree’s brilliant documentary tracking the odd friendship that evolves between up-and-coming Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova and Karl-Bertil Nordland, a drug-addicted criminal whom she impulsively asks to pose for her after he’s convicted of stealing her two most valuable canvases from a gallery wall in Oslo in 2015. The story’s twists and turns are too good to risk ruining in a review, but suffice to say that the film stands as a genuine testament to the way art can transform the lives of those who make it and those who appreciate it – however unconventionally that appreciation is expressed.

British writer/director Remi Weekes demonstrates plenty of imagination with His House, an ambitious attempt to make an Insidious-style horror movie rooted in the harsh reality of a Sudanese couple seeking asylum in modern day Britain. Dumped in a dilapidated house on a suburban London council estate, refugees Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) soon find the atmosphere within their new home as hostile as the one outside it as the psychological trauma of their escape from conflict-strewn South Sudan starts manifesting itself in the form of eerie noises and demonic hallucinations from which their daily run-ins with racist neighbours, ignorant school kids and condescending bureaucrats offers no respite. Though a little uneven in its efforts to balance genre thrills with social commentary, the film’s twists are imaginatively rendered and Dirisu and Mosaku are good as a couple struggling to reconcile their pasts with their present. Matt Smith co-stars as their beleaguered case-worker.

There’s yet more low-key horror in Relic, an atmospheric rather than scary debut from Australian co-writer and director Natalie Erica James. Using an old woman’s dementia as a catalyst for a kind of haunted house story, the film stars Robyn Nevin as the aforementioned old woman whose temporary disappearance as the movie opens brings her estranged daughter (Emily Mortimer) and college drop-out granddaughter (Bella Heathcote) back to her creepy woodland abode. What follows is good at dramatising the stressed-out family dynamics of its protagonists, but despite fine production design, there’s a frustrating lack of commitment to its more supernatural elements

Wunmi Mosaku as Rial Majur and Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù as Bol Majur in His House PIC: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX © 2020

Shirley is in cinemas and streaming on Curzon Home Cinema, Borat: Subsequent Movie Film is streaming on Amazon Prime, The Painter and the Thief and Relic are in cinemas and on digital platforms, His House is streaming on Netflix.

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