Iconic painter Edward Hopper is known as a chronicler of American life from the 1920’s through to his death in 1967. Paintings like Automat and Nighthawks invite us to imagine the interior life of their characters, and it’s an approach that has inspired the likes of Scottish artist Jack Vettriano and the rich, character-driven songs of Tom Waits.
Austrian filmmaker Gustav Deutsch has recreated thirteen of Hopper’s works and used them to construct the story of Shirley (Stephanie Cumming), an actress from New York over three decades from 1931 to 1963. Using Shirley’s interior monologue Deutsch gives us a snapshot of the landmark events of these years. Shirley broods her way through the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, World War II, The Cold War, the Korean conflict, McCarthyism, JFK and the Civil Rights Movement.
The main reason to watch Shirley is the combination of the lush cinematography of Jerzy Palacz and the opulent colours of set designer Hanna Schimek that gives a giddy air of unreality to an otherwise rigid exercise. Each segment is introduced by a contextual radio news broadcast before Shirley gives us her take on events, usually in a breathy mode of detached intellectualism.
Whether the approach works depends on whether you think Hopper’s works bears being repurposed to these political ends. His paintings seem to exist in a state of suspended romanticism; a parallel universe of film noir antiheroes, drowned sorrows and excellent jazz. There’s a sense of him being dragged kicking and screaming into the real world of global conflict and authentic struggle. The stronger scenes see Shirley lost in her thoughts as events impinge on her works as an actress. We see her working as an usherette at a theatre, mouthing along with the words coming from the stage offscreen. We witness her horror at director Eliza Kazan turning in his friends to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, having been directed by him years earlier in a play.
Cumming is a strong and interesting presence, really putting across the sense of an intense monologue raging behind her eyes, but despite her best efforts, Shirley becomes something of a cold exercise. It’s an interesting concept executed as well as it could be, but which runs out of steam a while before the shock of Martin Luther King’s assassination registers on her expressive face.