Review: Julianne Moore delivers haunting performance in 'Lisey's Story'

Stephen King calls the 2006 novel his personal favorite.

June 04, 2021, 4:00 AM

Stephen King calls his 2006 novel "Lisey's Story" his personal favorite. Charged with the supernatural (of course), the book is primarily a testimony to a marriage, much like King's own with Tabitha King, the novelist, activist and philanthropist (the couple wed in 1971).

"Lisey's Story" is now an eight-part limited series, streaming on Apple TV+, starring Oscar winner Julianne Moore as Lisey and Clive Owen as a bestselling master of the macabre much like King himself, who wrote every episode. What's on screen can be bloated, rambling and exasperating. It can also pull you up short with the beauty and terror of marital commitment.

PHOTO: Julianne Moore and Clive Owen in a scene from "Lisey's Story."
Julianne Moore and Clive Owen in a scene from "Lisey's Story."
Apple TV+

The film version begins with the death of author Scott Landon and the two-year struggle of his widow to come to terms with his legacy and her own life. King claims the idea came to him after a long hospitalization stemming from a near-fatal bout of pneumonia. On returning home, King recalled that his wife had cleaned out his study, leaving him feeling like a ghost.

As played by Moore in a haunting performance of uncommon subtlety and feeling, Lisey relives her relationship with Scott in flashbacks that reveal the secrets of their marriage and the holding power of their passion against the most horrific circumstances.

That horror involves Scott's childhood cooped up on a farm with an unhinged father (Michael Pitt) and an older brother (Clark Furlong) so violent that dad frequently felt the need to drain the bad blood out of him. The young Scott found his only refuge in retreating to Boo'ya Moon, a fantastical place where he could heal from real-life abuse.

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It's here that Chilean director Pablo Larrain -- who dealt with similar challenges in "Jackie," a film about JFK's widow -- takes imaginative leaps by making concrete the metaphorical implications of Boo'ya Moon, a shimmering pool with lurking monsters, figurative and literal. Though the water symbolism and production design are gorgeous, they give the place a surreal aura that's too arty by half and sinks the middle chapters of the series in a deadening gloom.

King is brilliant on the page, but his screenwriting here is often clunky and unfocused. It's the reality of "Lisey's Story" that cuts deepest. Not just the shared loyalty of Lisey and Scott, but the threat to Lisey from a professor (Ron Cephas Jones) who sics unstable superfan Jim Dooley (Dane DeHaan) on her for refusing to release Scott's unpublished manuscripts.

PHOTO: Julianne Moore in a scene from  "Lisey's Story."
Julianne Moore in a scene from "Lisey's Story."
Apple TV+

Though Lisey takes a brutal beating from Dooley, who creepily calls her "missus," she fights back. It's not men or ineffectual police who aid her, it's her two bickering sisters, the near catatonic Amanda (Joan Allen) and the skeptical Darla (a grounded and hilarious Jennifer Jason Leigh). The feminist dynamic to these scenes is undeniable and truly satisfying.

Still, this flawed but artfully ambitious series rises and falls on how much we believe in the love story at its core. Moore and Owen do wonders, even when we see Lisey enter the realm of Boo'ya Moon to help Scott hold on to his increasingly shaky sanity, before and after death.

Can a streaming series be both maddening and mesmerizing, infuriating and indelible? "Lisey's Story" can. It brims over with King's obsessions with childhood trauma, bloodletting, scavenger hunts called "bools" and demons prowling out of nightmares into the cold light of dawn.

PHOTO: Jennifer Jason Leigh and Julianne Moore in a scene from "Lisey's Story."
Jennifer Jason Leigh and Julianne Moore in a scene from "Lisey's Story."
Apple TV+

The difference this time is King's focus on love and its power to heal. King connects most to Lisey when she learns to stand alone. No ghosts. No co-dependence. No holding on when the real peace comes from letting go.

Binge watchers may be frustrated by the weeklong waits between one-hour episodes, but "Lisey's Story" profits from letting its psychological horror sink in and resonate. As Scott famously says, "Don't analyze, utilize -- accept the gift." Good advice.

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