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“Lisey’s Story” is a Visually Stunning Tale of Love and Healing

Friday, June 4, 2021 | Reviews

By JENN ADAMS

Starring Julianne Moore, Clive Owen, Joan Allen
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Written by Stephen King
Apple TV+

Within Stephen King’s massive canon, no novel is as personal to him as LISEY’S STORY. Inspired by his near-fatal accident in 1999, it’s an exploration of the life he would have left behind had he not survived. King adapted the script for an Apple TV+ limited series with the same name and the result is a clearly realized vision of love for his titular character. Lisey Landon (Julianne Moore) is the widow of acclaimed author Scott Landon (Clive Owen), a stand-in for King himself, who reluctantly begins the task of moving on with her life. Complicating matters is her sister’s struggle with mental illness and a deranged fan named Jim Dooley (Dane DeHaan) who is hell-bent on retrieving Scott’s personal papers by any means necessary. Though LISEY’S STORY drifts through a surreal, non-linear timeline with some dark and fantastical twists along the way, it is ultimately a story of human connection and the healing power of love.

King has often claimed this 2006 novel as his personal favorite and the bestselling author sticks closely to his original text. However, several wise edits and streamlined characters focus the tone to match the dreamy narrative. Chief among these updates is the elimination of the internal language Scott and Lisey share in the novel. Gone are the pervasive “smukys, incunks, and bad gunkys” of the source material. He and director Pablo Larraín seem to share a clear vision for the story and this iteration feels like a well-considered modernization of the novel.

Key moments from Scott and Lisey’s life together unfold emotionally as flashbacks weave seamlessly through the meandering central narrative. Contemplative pacing allows the audience to discover each significant event from her past as she examines then packs away treasured objects from Scott’s study. In lesser hands, this would feel jarring and illogical, but King’s tight grasp of the story creates a richly woven sentimental tapestry. Larraín lingers on emotional beats not fully explained, focusing on their impact just as much as their narrative importance.

This grounding is essential in a story where characters retreat to an alternate reality called Boo’ya Moon, a fantasy world of healing and inspiration. Lush and otherworldly gardens hide a magical pool that draws lost and troubled souls to sit quietly at its shores. Amanda revisits treasured memories at the water’s edge after a psychotic break, while Scott retreats there to heal after attacks from his abusive father. It’s a place of vivid beauty and serene calm. But is guarded by a monstrous creature known to Scott as the “Longboy” and is deadly due to abandoning life by staying there too long.

Every frame is visually stunning, from the rustic warmth of Scott’s study, to the earthy heated pool Lisey uses both as a respite and a conduit to other times and places. Every frame is visually delicious and punctuated with a near-perfect score by Clark. Flashbacks from Scott’s horrendous childhood even have an artfully grimy quality that feels intentionally off-putting. Flowing water serves as both a thematic element and visual cue, effectively allowing the audience to smoothly float through narrative time and place. The opening sequence is simply stunning. Wooden marionettes call to each other, perfectly encapsulating the emotional tone and narrative core of the story in a way that feels captivating and hypnotic rather than superficially artful and confusing. 

Moore is brilliant as the widowed Lisey struggling to move forward with her life. The Oscar-winning actress provides the emotional anchor grounding this story for the audience just as Lisey grounds her fictional husband in their reality. Owen plays Scott in an understated performance, remaining omnipresent in the story, but rarely taking the spotlight. The two have a quiet but unwavering connection and their devotion to each other feels substantial even in its more fantastical moments.

Lisey is supported in her grief by her two sisters, Amanda (Joan Allen) and  Darla (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Allen both shines and terrifies in an unnerving portrayal of a woman struggling to maintain her grasp on reality. Leigh delivers much-needed levity to the mind bending plot, often serving as the audience’s conduit for disbelief. DeHaan plays the quietly menacing Jim Dooley, a dangerously devoted fan desperate to get his hands on Scott’s rumoured unpublished stories. His monotone delivery hints at a dangerous rage waiting to explode in violence. Dooley’s constantly stated hatred for Lisey (and all women) is a welcome refinement of King’s original character and informs his more egregious actions with clear intent.

LISEY’S STORY’s most complicated element is its depiction of mental illness. Scott and Amanda both engage in self-harm and retreat to Boo’ya Moon as a way of dissociating from reality. While the cuts are brutal and unflinching, they are also romanticized. The ability to quickly heal in the magical waters of the pool provides a do-over that limits the stakes of these serious injuries and minimizes the consequences of dangerous actions.

It’s perhaps important to note that this is a story of untreated mental illness and thus is open to interpretation by the characters who experience it. We see the inside of a mental illness, through a visual representation of distorted internal thought processes. As the name implies, looking at the story through Lisey’s lens gives key insight into the life and experiences of a caregiver. She supports both Amanda and Scott and it’s her strength and resolve that saves them. Rather than ridicule or dismiss her loved ones, Lisey joins them in their pain, fully understanding what they’re going through and helping them find the way out by meeting them where they are. It’s a beautiful though complicated metaphor for the emotional toll of loving a person with a mental illness.

LISEY’S STORY feels like a glimpse into the private life of King and his beloved wife Tabitha. Throughout the series, Lisey repeats a mantra about finding Scott in the darkness and it’s easy to hear King writing these words directly to his wife. He’s said many times that the secret of his success is that he stayed sober and he stayed married and LISEY’S STORY feels like a tribute to the woman by his side through it all. 

“Each marriage keeps its own secrets.” This line of text from Scott’s writing opens the series, introducing a beautiful but complicated tale of intimacy in many forms. LISEY’S STORY is a testament to love’s ability to endure through sickness and death and proof that even the most troubled hearts can heal with the strength of human connection.

LISEY’S STORY is available now, exclusively on Apple TV+

Jenn Adams