"Shirley Adams (2009)" - Review

Denise Newman in Oliver Hermanus’ Shirley Adams" (2009)"

Denise Newman in Oliver Hermanus’ Shirley Adams" (2009)"

By André Crous

Shirley Adams is a proud woman trying to cope as well as she can with her domestic situation. Nine months before the film starts, her teenage son, Donovan, had been hit by a stray bullet while he was returning home in a crime-ridden low-income area of Cape Town, South Africa, known as the “Cape Flats”. The incident left Donovan paralysed, a quadriplegic. A few months later, Shirley’s husband abandoned them, never to be seen again. From time to time, they do receive an envelope with some money, but Shirley never questions the origins of the support, having accepted the responsibility of caring for Donovan all on her own.

In the film’s harrowing opening scene, which takes place in the dead of night, the camera nervously hovers over Shirley’s shoulders while she tries to resuscitate Donovan; he is unconscious, and foaming at the mouth, and in the following scene, in case we couldn’t guess, a doctor tells Shirley that Donovan had tried to commit suicide.

Shirley has devoted herself to the well-being of her only child, but Donovan, who is frustrated by his own helplessness and ashamed at being cared for (his mother has to wash him in the bathtub, an event that Donovan considers the ultimate form of his own debasement), is already in a downward spiral – and his suicide attempt at the beginning of the film is a good indication of how low his self-image has fallen. As a result of his own demons, and probably without any cruel intentions, Donovan lashes out at this mother, and their relationship clearly suffers because of his apparent ingratitude for her help.

The word that best describes the film’s camerawork would be “intimate”. Director Oliver Hermanus and his DP, Jamie Ramsay, tend to show the events from behind Shirley and this stubborn focus on intimacy can cause some frustration in a viewer who – admittedly, by convention, but with good reason, in my opinion – expects an establishing shot now and again. However, despite this unrelentingly close experience of events, a number of self-conscious shots in which we only see the back of main actress Denise Newman’s head, and a story that is very simple, first-time director Hermanus succeeds in gripping his audience thanks to his self-assured direction that steers the film away from any fake sentimentality. His approach is entirely appropriate for the story he is telling, and it is plain to see that the film was a labour of love.

Shirley Adams does not contain any picturesque views of the Mother City (the locals’ nickname for Cape Town), but the accents and the slight shifts between languages make it a very clearly defined story from South Africa; at the same time, it seems odd to label it a South African film, not merely because it mostly eschews any mention of politics, but because, frankly, the country has never before produced anything like it. If any specific influence is to be discerned, it would be the films of the Romanian New Wave: The film contains a number of single takes, but one shot in particular, which occurs during Donovan’s birthday, is very reminiscent of the famous shot around the dinner table in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. Hermanus’s Shirley Adams is an example of exceptional filmmaking and ranks amongst the best films his country has ever produced.

Country South Africa

Released 2009

Director(s) Oliver Hermanus

Screenwriter(s) Oliver Hermanus, Stavros Pamballis

Directors of Photography Jamie Ramsay

Running Time 90 minutes


André Crous is a professional film critic and a member of FIPRESCI. He holds a French honour’s degree, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. His research examined the works of Francois Truffaut, Mikhail Kalatazov, Martin Scorcese, Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Winterbottom. He writes about movies in his blog, Celluloid Paradiso and lives in Prague, Czech Republic. | Read More ⟩