Review: 'Lisey's Story' a Messy, but Atmospheric, Miniseries Adaptation

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday June 4, 2021

Julianne Moore in 'Lisey's Story,' premiering globally June 4 on Apple TV+
Julianne Moore in 'Lisey's Story,' premiering globally June 4 on Apple TV+  (Source:Apple TV+)

How thrilling is this: Julianne Moore executive produces and stars in "Lisey's Story," an eight-episode miniseries adaptation of the 2006 Stephen King novel. King himself adapts the book for television, and acclaimed Chilean director Pablo Larraín (the upcoming Princess Diana biopic "Spencer") helms all eight episodes.

Inspired by King's own brush with death (he was hit by a van while taking a walk in 1999), the story follows Lisey (Moore), the widow of globally successful horror writer Scott Landon (Clive Owen), as she struggles to come to terms with her grief and loneliness. When a deranged fan named Jim Dooley (Dean DeHaan) begins to threaten Lisey with physical harm unless she gives him all of her late husband's unpublished manuscripts, a struggle erupts between his brute force tactics and her strategic cleverness.

But there's a supernatural twist: The late Landon had possessed an ability to travel to another dimension, a fairytale-like place haunted by a grotesque monster but also blessed with an ocean of magically healing water. The ghost of Landon still dwells there, and he has some capacity to intervene in the affairs of the living. What's more, Lisey - having visited the fantastical realm with Scott while he was alive - begins to piece together exactly how she can access that other dimension on her own, and make use of it in her battle against Dooley.

The combination of story and talent sounds like a recipe for a gripping success, and in certain ways that's what "Lisey's Story" is, boasting gorgeous production design (by Guy Hendrix Dyas) and an atmospheric look and feel. Moore's title character is smart, tough, and emotionally raw; when she's quarreling, scheming, or celebrating with her sisters (played by Joan Allen and Jennifer Jason Leigh), the family dynamics crackle.

The narrative, however, is something of a jumble, especially in the earlier episodes. The series begins with a flashback: An attempt on Scott's life by (yet another) deranged fan. We're immediately clued in to Lisey's courage and toughness when she snatches up a shovel and deals the assailant a blow across the face.

More flashbacks follow, with the series jumping erratically between present and past. The structure is effective at portraying Lisey's paralyzed state of grief - memories of her years with Scott are always close at hand, and when they intrude on her they can be soothing, frightening, or painful - but as the story progresses and events begin to shift not only back and forth and time, but also from one dimension to another, the series starts to get confusing. Flashbacks take place within flashbacks; a couple of episodes take place largely in the past, and detail Scott's childhood memories - a useful device, but strange in how it takes the focus off Lisey.

Some questions are deliberately left unanswered until late in the run (how did Scott die?), but others feel crowded out and obscured by so much jumping around. What does the particular form of self-harm known as cutting have to do with the ability to access, and travel to, the other dimension? Why is water such an important element? Is that other dimension Scott's invention, or is his imagination the key, as it were, to unlocking it?)

Further complicating the story is a narrative doubling of sorts - which is not unusual for King, but which could benefit from more detailed explanation. The other dimension, it seems, has some sort of hold over Scott's family lineage, but it also has some bearing on the life - and the psychological condition - of Lisey's older sister, Amanda (Allen), who, after a grisly episode of cutting, lapses into what seems like catatonia (her mind - or is it her soul? - is in the other dimension, and from this vantage she can watch while Jim torments Lisey). Is this mere coincidence? Does the other dimension demand that those in its thrall seek each other out?

King, never the best adapter of his own work (remember "Maximum Overdrive?"), allows his novelistic tendencies to eclipse the show's cinematic needs. Some passages drag, while others feel inaptly placed in the series as a whole. Some transitions feel awkward. Even the flashback-heavy structure is more suited to the page than to the screen. On the other hand, the dialogue is generally lively and naturalistic, and the characterizations are strong; Moore's, in particular, is deftly developed so that, as the series continues, Lisey gains more depth and dimension.

A word of warning: The series is brutal in terms of physical violence, particularly in flashbacks that involve child abuse and in two harrowing scenes in which Dooley assaults Lisey. Even jaded viewers will wince; those who are more sensitive may find these scenes sickening. DeHaan, to his credit, makes for a chilling bad guy, and he brings a complete dedication to the role of Dooley, who is a methodical psychopath with no apparent sense of limits or humanity. (In one of the series' darker moments of satire, Dooley serves as a devastating take on toxic fandom's blend of entitlement, paranoia, misogyny, exaggerated sense of butt-hurt victimization, and dead-eyed callousness.) A measure of redress, perhaps, is to be found in the fact that Lisey and her sisters prove more than capable of doing it for themselves when it comes to standing up to the hate and fury directed at them; there are male would-be protectors ready to help, but even after taking a horrific beating Lisey prefers to handle things in her own way.

Adaptations of King's works have been ubiquitous lately, so much so that comparisons are not only inevitable, they make for a quick and handy reference for ranking. By that metric, "Lisey's Story" falls somewhat below the first installment of the recent two-part remake of "It," and doesn't reach the bar set by Mike Flanagan's 2019 movie version of "Doctor Sleep" - but it surpasses this year's other King-based miniseries, "The Stand," thanks in large part to the cast and Larraín's directing.

"Lisey's Story" is available today to stream at Apple+ TV.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.