You won’t be able to look away: Shirley reviewed

31 October 2020

9:00 AM

31 October 2020

9:00 AM

Mogul Mowgli

15, Selected Cinemas


15, Selected Cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema

This week, two electrifying performances in two excellent films rather than two mediocre performances in the one mediocre film — see: Rebecca— so things are looking up.

Firstly, Mogul Mowgli, starring Riz Ahmed, directed by Bassam Tariq and co-written by the pair. Ahmed plays Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper who has lived in New York for two years and is on the brink of stardom when he returns home to his family in London. It’s intended as a brief visit but then he is struck down by an autoimmune disease that is never named but is something like multiple sclerosis. The point is, I think, even his body doesn’t recognise him any more. Or as his American girlfriend had put it to him: ‘For someone who raps so much about where they’re from, when was the last time you spent time with your family?’

In print, in the cold light of day, this all sounds like a typical culture-clash film and the more I go on the more it will sound like that. He has run-ins with his traditional father (Alyy Khan). His mother (Sudha Bhuchar) burns peppers to ward off the evil eye. A fellow Muslim calls him a ‘coconut’.

But while the themes may be familiar, and while we are very much in the territory that is you-can’t-know-where-you-are–headed-until-you-know-where-you-are-from, you haven’t, I swear, seen it done like this before. The storytelling involves home cine footage, magical realism, hallucinations, the saddest sperm donation scene you will ever see and some exhilaratingly intense rap scenes — Ahmed is also a rapper in real life — that are exhilaratingly intense even if it’s hard to make out the lyrics. (I blame my old ears, which are more accustomed to swing.)

And at the heart of it all is Ahmed, from whom you can’t look away. He is mesmerising. And his bracing, impassioned performance is never one-note. Zed isn’t always an especially likeable character but Ahmed ensures he becomes a sympathetic one. Also, I forgot to say, it is funny. If you’ve ever sent your parents, say, a new washing machine that four months later is still sitting there in its box, well… That’s in there too.

The other electrifying performance comes from Elisabeth Moss in Shirley. Directed by Josephine Decker, Moss plays a fictionalised version of Shirley Jackson, the American writer who died in 1965 and was known for her dark tales, including The Haunting of Hill House and her New Yorker short story ‘The Lottery’.

This imagines Shirley and her husband, critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, inviting a young couple into their Vermont home and then terrorising them. So it’s Shirley actually in the dark tale Shirley would have delighted in writing. And it’s exactly as marvellous as that sounds.

The film opens with the young couple, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young), arriving in Vermont where Shirley is holding court at a party, gleefully noting that ‘The Lottery’ is ‘the most reviled story the New Yorker has ever published’. (I hadn’t read it. I have now. Oh, boy.) Fred is Stanley’s new teaching assistant while Rose is manipulated into becoming their housekeeper. Shirley does not do chores. (‘Cleanliness is a symptom of mental inferiority,’ she says, thrillingly.)

We are always on edge. Stanley is controlling and womanising. Shirley is sometimes cruel and sometimes kind to Rose, who becomes her muse, after a fashion, and who will be forever changed. Stanley and Shirley toy with Fred and Rose because it amuses them to wreak havoc but the film goes deeper and also takes us into Shirley’s inner life.

This is achieved by camera work that rarely looks at anything head-on, so we’re sharing her destabilised view of the world, and as for Moss’s performance, she captures Shirley’s unpredictability, sexual frustration, fury at the patriarchy, the works.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments