Dark tale given life

Published date13 July 2021
Date13 July 2021
Publication titleSignal
FOR Lisey’s Story, Stephen King has taken it upon himself to adapt what he has described as one of his favourite books, the tale of a writer (dead, not quite departed) and the woman who loves him.

It’s an A-list cast. Clive Owen plays Scott, the writer, successful on a par with King himself, but with a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award besides. He has been dead a couple of years when the story begins — the novel was partially inspired by King’s brushes with death — but will appear plenty, in flashbacks, dreams, visions and a sort of purgatory where much crucial action will take place, and in and out of which certain characters will travel with relative ease. Julianne Moore plays Lisey, Scott’s widow.

Joan Allen is her sister Amanda, who has some psychological problems, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is her sister Darla, who doesn’t. Dane DeHaan plays the demented fan who drives one of two violent storylines; Michael Pitt is Scott’s father, who drives the other. Ron Cephas Jones plays an academic with an outsized sense of entitlement — another brand of misguided admirer. (The story plays in parts like a variation on the themes of King’s Misery. One imagines he has had plenty of experience of readers who thought he was sending them messages or stealing their thoughts, or owes them something for making them feel that they owe him something.)

Although King has stated his dislike of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Lisey’s Story seems to take cues from its pacing, composition and camera work, with a similar emphasis on scenes that put a few bodies in a big space. In any case, it swings for something big and cinematic and artistic and deep, which you may take as a good plan or a bad one. It is the sort of work that some will find ineffably beautiful and others unbearably tiresome. Acknowledging its prettiness and production values, and some excellent performances, I found it better than unbearable but something less than beautiful.

Directed throughout by Chilean film-maker Pablo Larrain, it establishes an atmosphere of mournful dread from the first frame and rarely takes its foot off that pedal; it is spooky nearly all the time, even when characters are briefly enjoying themselves, which has the effect of undercutting the spookiness. And where the story on the page is full of King’s stream-of-consciousness quotidian asides — like the cost of a plastic bucket and where it was bought — that suggest the characters sometimes do normal things normally, the miniseries...

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