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► Lisey’s Story has a new episode streaming weekly on Apple TV+.
Named by Stephen King in a Rolling Stone interview as his favourite of the 60-plus books he has written – a large proportion of which have been adapted, often multiple times, for the big and small screens – Lisey’s Story (2006) is also his most personal.
It’s no surprise, then, that King has himself written the screenplay for this series; something he has only done for a handful of his adaptations, including Pet Semetary (1989) and the miniseries The Stand (1994). Here, this intimate relationship between writer and subject results in a remarkable piece of television, which not only tells a compelling story but captures the chilling atmosphere that creeps across the novel’s pages and lingers long after its final chapter.
Lisey (Julianne Moore) is struggling to come to terms with the death of her husband, celebrated Pulitzer-prize-winning fantasy author Scott Landon (Clive Owen). Her grief is compounded by the fact that her sister Amanda (Joan Allen) is suffering an extreme psychotic breakdown, plagued by the same desire to self-harm and terrifying visions that afflicted Scott. Lisey is also being hounded by an unhinged Landon fan, Jim Dooley (an intense Dane DeHaan), who is desperate to get his hands on Scott’s unpublished work.
“To the public eye, the spouses of well-known writers are all but invisible, and no one knew it better than Lisey Landon.” So goes the opening line of the novel and, on its surface, Lisey’s Story is a scathing, keenly observed exploration of female sacrifice, and the illusion of celebrity. Lisey, who has given her life in support of Scott’s craft, is often at the receiving end of comments that are dismissive and patronising at best, misogynistic and threatening at worst. The suggestion is that, just because she shared a life – and, sneers one literary professor, a bed – with Scott, doesn’t mean that she has the capacity to understand him as a writer, or appreciate him as a creative genius.
But Lisey knows her husband better than most do, and it’s in the depths of their evolving relationship that her story wields its dramatic power. She has been privy to his darkest thoughts, shared his memories of a childhood spent with an abusive, schizophrenic father who taught him to cut himself (a “blood bool” in his family’s parlance) to let out the demons. Together with his long-dead beloved brother Paul, as a child Scott learned to escape to a fantastical place called Boo’ya Moon; a landscape of both dreams and nightmares that Scott is adamant exists. It’s these experiences that inspired Scott’s work; the meeting of the real and the imagined, the macabre and the melancholic, that resonates so deeply with his readers.
This tonal interplay is also at the heart of Lisey’s Story. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín (The Club, 2015; Jackie, 2016) – who directs all eight episodes – works effectively in the disorienting space between the story’s devastating real-world trauma and its otherworldly elements. Crucially, he handles the latter as part of the wider narrative; frightening moments are also ones of revelation and redemption that are effectively interwoven into what is, essentially, a love story between Lisey and the husband she is still getting to know after his death. Her discovery of a ‘bool hunt’ Scott has left for her – clues she feels she must follow in order to help Amanda escape her catatonic state – pushes her to unravel their lives together, and deeper into his fractured psyche. The strength of her feelings for him – the man, not the legend – propel her on.
As Lisey is forced to face some difficult demons, Julianne Moore puts in another masterful performance. At times lost in the mists of memories of happier days with her husband and sisters, at others using acerbic putdowns against those who would claim Scott as their own, she owns the character’s extreme emotions without ever succumbing to the clichés of the wronged or grief-stricken woman. She has genuine agency throughout – this is, after all, her story – and Moore digs deep into Lisey’s conflicting feelings (fear, frustration, adoration) as she comes to see her husband and his work more clearly. Alongside her, an unrecognisable Joan Allen is outstanding as the desperately lost Amanda, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is at her spiky, sardonic best as Lisey’s other sister, no-nonsense Darla.
With the story weaving through the past and present, Lisey and Scott’s shared history revealed in well-handled flashbacks which shift and shimmer as memories wax and wane, director of photography Darius Khondji lingers on moments of beauty and foreboding. In a key scene, a stunning snowy honeymoon in a hotel – pleasingly reminiscent of the Overlook in The Shining (1980) – takes on an increasingly shadowy quality as Scott tells stories from his past. As we are absorbed into this memory within a memory, the dusty, heat-shimmering, blood-soaked farmland of his childhood cuts through the pristine cold of their current surroundings.
A pensive score by Clark effectively ties the timelines together, soaring and skulking along the ever-shifting terrain of Lisey’s understanding. Reflections in water, in mirrors, in time itself, take on increasing significance – the link between what Lisey knows to be real and what she desperately hopes is not.
Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy