The first obligation on reading a Stephen King novel or watching an adaptation is to acknowledge that you will be confronted with a battle between good and evil. The second obligation is to be aware that King has a set of underlying themes: poverty is evil, everyone is flawed, children are essentially good and being a writer means living a tortured existence.
Lisey’s Story (streams on AppleTV+ from Friday) dwells on several of the underlying themes. It is also a highly unusual adaptation of King’s work – he adapted all eight episodes himself and all are directed by Chilean art house director Pablo Larrain. You notice from the get-go that this is a gorgeous production, rich in a palette of fall colours and achingly quiet. Also, from the start, water plays a significant role. Anyone who swims will envy the outdoor pool that the central character slips into at the beginning of multiple episodes.
That’s Lisey (Julianne Moore), who is grieving the loss of her husband Scott (Clive Owen), two years after his death. Scott was that rare figure, a popular writer taken seriously as a literary figure. In numerous flashbacks we see Lisey’s memory of an attempt to murder Scott, possibly by a deranged fan. Thus we get a hint that Scott is a figure like King himself – much adored and read, but in King’s case he hasn’t the literary acclaim that Scott acquires.
In the midst of this ravishing but lugubrious landscape and mood Lisey swims, mopes about and seems to have contact only with her two sisters, the starkly unhinged Amanda (Joan Allen) and down-to earth Darla (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Meanwhile, Lisey tries to fend off various scholars who turn up asking about access to Scott’s papers. It’s a coldly isolated existence for Lisey.
But as the story unfolds – two episodes arrive first and then weekly – the drama is less Lisey’s story than it is Scott’s. We become aware that Lisey and Scott had a unique bond because he revealed the heartbreaking scars of his bleak childhood to her and her alone. She understands his childhood fuelled his books but senses she knows only part of the full story.
That’s where Amanda takes her, into a place imagined as benign but revealed as terrifying. At this point the viewer might lose patience, because King’s monsters here are gruesome and outrageous. The thing is, you know that the actual monster looming throughout, is grief. While so much is made of Scott’s childhood terrors, Lisey is the more interesting character, her mourning being profound and unknowable to anyone else.
The point where the storyline shifts to a netherworld will put off some viewers but there is so much to luxuriate in, from the exquisite setting and colour palette, to the performances of Moore, Allen and Leigh. There are scenes that put, wonderfully, their skills on display and in contrast Clive Owen as the writer is like someone beckoned away to different story. What underlying theme is here? Being a writer means living a tortured existence, certainly, but also that the writer’s support figure, a spouse or partner, is more than a mere supporting character.
Biography: Bret “Hitman” Hart (Sunday, A&E, 8 p.m.) is new and part of a series of Biography programs devoted to wrestling figures. The Hart story is, of course, of considerable interest to Canadians. Bret is one of 12 children born to Canadian wrestler and promoter Stu Hart, and after a childhood devoted mainly to becoming an artist – he’s mainly interviewed here at his easel – he joined his father’s Stampede Wrestling troupe. Then after success as part of a duo with his brother, with his “Hitman” persona he became a superstar and five-time champion. While much of pro wrestling is theatre, the controversies and tragedies that beset the Hart family are very real.
The Kennedy Centre Honors 2021 (Sunday, CBS, 8 p.m.) is the first such event of the Biden era and of course made complicated by COVID-19 restrictions. The gist is that singer Joan Baez, country-guy Garth Brooks, dancer-choreographer-actor Debbie Allen, violinist Midori and actor Dick Van Dyke are at the core of the ceremony and performances. Some of it took place for advance taping in the Kennedy Center’s theatres, and some on its terraces, roof, and on the lawns outside.
Finally, note The 2021 Juno Awards (Sunday, CBC, 8 p.m.) marks the end of many days of Juno celebrations across CBC platforms. The pandemic situation is particularly hard on the event, because this is the 50th Juno Awards. What happens is appearances and presentations featuring The Tragically Hip with Feist, Justin Bieber, Maestro Fresh Wes, Jann Arden and others.
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