It is tempting, easy, and maybe even accurate to describe Shirley, director Josephine Becker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins's adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell's 2014 novel, as a biopic of Shirley Jackson. But it is not by any stretch of the imagination an accurate one. To be scrupulously fair, it does not pretend to be; it's very obviously a Jacksonian riff on the material of her own genius, telling an almost entirely fictional account of the circumstances surrounding the writing of her second novel, Hangsman from 1951 (among the fictions: the film declares this to be her first novel). It's not the first time a film about a writer has taken up the idea of putting her in a story that evokes the ones she wrote (there are multiple Poe "biopics" that take this route), but it's a more enjoyable way to take the moribund genre than scrupulous reportage, and Jackson, whose corpus includes so many whispery, ineffably horrifying and mysterious tales of the crushing difficulty of women's lives in a male-oriented world, is an exceptionally good candidate for this approach, I daresay.

The film's conception of Jackson's life supposes her to be a slightly menacing figure in her own right: psychologically fragile, undoubtedly (when we meet her, she's suffering from an intense bout of agoraphobia), but also a keen manipulator, even a little bit of a bully, and more than capable of exercising her will; the loamy gloom that seems to cover every interior in the purposefully ugly, high-contrast cinematography by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen seems to come from nowhere but Shirley's doomy, morbid mind, and her eagerness to infect everyone around her with that morbidity. It's a perfect conception of the role for Elisabeth Moss to play, so perfect that I'd almost be tempted to say that Moss is lazy casting, if she wasn't so incredibly good in the part.

Of course, the wrinkle to all of the above is that Shirley is herself a victim in her own life, married to a philandering college English professor, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), who infantilises her, constantly proclaiming her genius in a way that somehow feels insulting and condescending even through the effusion, and using smooth, pleasant speech to slice cut her with a thousand little knives. Stuhlbarg is pretty great in his own right, though he's limited by the film's conception of Stanley; the character lacks any kind of subtlety or nuance. If he were a proper sociopath, there'd be some veneer of charisma and affection, a honeyed coating to disguise the lacerating viciousness underneath; as written and performed, however, the film's Stanley is so overtly cruel and revoltingly arrogant that it's hard to imagine anybody spending more than 30 seconds in his company without all the skin crawling off their body. And this doesn't fit in with a story that, to a certain extent, depends on him being superficially affable and welcoming. It also leaves the suitably disconcerting ending with basically nowhere to go; it depends on a reading of the marriage that Moss's performance leaves room for, but Stuhlbarg's really doesn't. Still, he's doing the work of playing an insidious asshole beautifully, leering and smarmy in very robust, gregarious ways.

So that's two amazing, world-class performances. They are, I am somewhat sad to report, far and away the best things the film has to offer. It is a well-crafted film - I really do admire the cinematography, and also Decker's brutal use of close-ups to ramp up the feeling of being stuck in an airless house with hostile people. And while the score, by Tamar-kali, is used very sparingly, it hits extremely hard when it does show up, angry horror droning that feels like it belongs in the '90s or '00s, creating a severe break with the constricting '40s norms of the plot and settings. But the craft is remote; one does not feel pulled into the world, but invited to observe it, objectively and coldly. This goes even more for the emotions, which are all presented as concepts to be dissected rather than feelings. This is a perfectly valid approach to take the script, but it's not very easy to get super-excited about watching it; it's hyper-intellectualised and so focused on viewing the performances as performances and the script as a structure that it feels sort of mildly resentful that it has to go through the bother of having an audience, given how well it has already analysed itself.

So that's one... well, I can't call it a "problem", because it's very obviously the purposeful strategy of the film. It's a strategy I don't care for. What is a problem, and a pretty big one in my mind, is that for all that Shirley and Stanley make for a remarkable study of a deeply corrosive and cruel marriage, and for all that Moss and Stuhlbarg devour their roles with fearless prickliness and predatory slyness, it's kind of not actually their movie. Right at the start, Stanley announces that they're going to play host to a new faculty member, Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), and his wife Rose (Odessa Young), and this couple ends up serving as audience to Shirley and Stanley's private war, as ironic contrast, as thematic punching backs, and, most of all, as a damn waste of time. Basically, suppose that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? made the young couple the protagonist, and you start to see at least the neighborhood of the problem that Shirley makes for itself.

Now, it's not exactly that: Fred doesn't emerge as much of a character, or really anything other than a necessary precondition for the plot to take place. Rose, however, is certainly more of an important character than Stanley, and there's an argument that she's the film's main protagonist even more than Shirley herself. And this is something that neither the writing, nor Young's small performance can support. The film posits the co-dependent, erotically-charged friendship between Rose and Shirley as a lifeline to the author that she draws strength from, then abuses and exploits, and funnels into the writing of Hangsaman, while Rose herself laps up Shirley's weird, destructive attention in much the same way that Shirley is strangely welcoming of her awful husband's approval and feints towards affection. There's also a bit of a mirror, where Shirley stands in for the strength of a "bad wife", by late '40s standards, while Rose represents the claustrophobia and loss of self experienced by a "good wife". And she's just not good enough or interesting enough to bear that much of the film's weight. I hate to say it, but it almost makes me wish Shirley was actually more of a biopic: the Nemsers didn't exist, and for the film to make the intellectual points it wants to, Shirley and Stanley's children have to be erased from history (the film's ideas about the social roles of women, as specifically expressed here, would be incoherent if Shirley was a mother), and I can't help but feel like the film could do exactly what it wants to do with Moss's performance with just that swap, and thus avoid pulling so much attention from Moss and handing it to Young, who simply doesn't do anything with it. Whatever the solution, though, Shirley's odd choice of focus and its elevation of supporting characters to co-stars both limit it rather badly. It's good, but it has all the ingredients to be very good, and I'm more than a little disappointed at how effortlessly it falls short of that attainable mark.