×

Film Review: ‘Shelley’

An underdeveloped psychological horror exercise from debuting Danish helmer Ali Abbasi.

With:
Cosmina Stratan, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Peter Christoffersen, Kenneth M. Christensen, Patricia Schumann, Bjorn Andresen, Marianne Mortensen, Marlon Kindberg Bach. (Danish, English, Romanian dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5013688/

A young Romanian housekeeper agrees to be a surrogate mother for her employers, a wealthy Danish couple living off the grid, only to get more than she bargains for in “Shelley,” an underdeveloped psychological horror exercise in which nothing adds up. A sinisterly picturesque location at the edge of a lake in an isolated forest supplies atmosphere aplenty, but that seems to be the only string on the bow of Danish helmer Ali Abbasi’s debut, and he plucks it repeatedly to diminishing returns. Home formats are where most viewers will likely encounter this unsatisfying item.

Practical-minded economic migrant Elena (Cosmina Stratan, who nabbed a Cannes best actress kudo for Cristian Mungiu’s “Beyond the Hills”) is working outside her homeland in order to more quickly accumulate the money she needs to buy an apartment back home. Meanwhile, her much-missed young son remains with her parents in Bucharest.

For reasons never specified, Elena’s employers, fragile Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen, “Blind,” here made up to look practically albino) and usually absent Kasper (Peter Christoffersen), choose to live away from modern technology, even electricity, although for purposes of the narrative, they maintain an old-fashioned landline telephone and a fancy car for trips to the city. Louise, who is unable to bear a child of her own, suffers from a mysterious malady that requires the attention of a feral-looking local healer, Leo (Bjorn Andresen), whose ministrations release bad energy.

After Elena conceives, Louise becomes stronger and more vibrant while the poor Romanian grows weaker and paler. Elena also becomes prone to strange visions, but it remains unclear as to whether they are the result of her pregnancy or due to some malignant force that apparently lingers around the property, especially in the chicken coop. Still, her cravings are not of the usual sort displayed by a healthy pregnant woman, signaling the presence of a demon in utero. Meanwhile, Abbasi remains  content to make the audience uneasy through visual and aural cues, rather than connecting the dots with powerful backstory.

As the never-less-than-good-looking pic lurches from one ludicrous set piece to another, even the most forgiving genre fan will stop suspending disbelief. Per press materials, Abbasi has only ever seen four or five horror films and he thinks of genre as a marketing device rather than as a category of expression with conventions that must be respected even as they are manipulated. What on paper had the potential to be a latter-day “Rosemary’s Baby” is, in practice, merely moody window dressing that privileges style over content. Both the fine Stratan and Dorrit Petersen gamely put up with some unpleasant body horror and manage to make their characters as compelling as possible, despite being ill served by the script, penned by Maren Louise Kaehne and Abbasi, based on his original story.

The glowing, low-light lensing leads the expert technical package, but the use of two cinematographers and screen formats (Sturla Brandth Grovlen for the early 16:9 scenes and Nadim Carlsen for the later widescreen), with the switch made to mark Elena’s pregnancy, registers as just a showy device rather than adding any deeper meaning. Martin Dirkov’s unsettling electronica score and Rune Bjerre Sand’s eerie sound design support the atmosphere; sadly, the screenplay does not.

The Iran-born, Denmark-based Abbasi is already at work on “The Holy Spider,” a feature about one of Iran’s most infamous serial killers.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Shelley'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 16, 2016. Running time: 92 MIN.

Production: A Profile Pictures production in co-production with Solid Entertainment, with support from New Danish Screen, Film i Skane in association with B Media Global, Backup Media. (International sales: Indie Sales, Paris.) Produced by Jacob Jarek. Executive producers, David Atlan-Jackson, Ditte Milsted, Thor Sigurjonsson. Co-producers, Magnus Paulsson, Anders Banke.

Crew: Directed by Ali Abbasi. Screenplay, Maren Louise Kaehne, Abbasi, based on an original story by Abbasi. Camera (Color, HD, 16:9/widescreen), Sturla Brandth Grovlen, Nadim Carlsen; editor, Olivia Neergaard-Holm; music, Martin Dirkov; production designers, Sabine Hviid, Kristine Koster; costume designer, Camilla Nordbjerg Olsen; visual effects supervisor, Peter Hjorth; special effects makeup, Morten Jacobsen, Thomas Foldberg; sound (5.1), Rune Bjerre Sand.

With: Cosmina Stratan, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Peter Christoffersen, Kenneth M. Christensen, Patricia Schumann, Bjorn Andresen, Marianne Mortensen, Marlon Kindberg Bach. (Danish, English, Romanian dialogue)

More Film

  • Benedict Andrews (L) and US actress

    Kristen Stewart on the 'Insane Gall' of Directors as 'Seberg' Arrives in San Sebastian

    SAN SEBASTIAN – On Friday, Kristen Stewart and Benedict Andrews’ political thriller “Seberg” plays at the 67th San Sebastian Film Festival, where it opens Perlak, a section dedicated to the Spanish premieres of major international films. The star and her director addressed the media prior to the screening in the festival’s first high-profile press conference, [...]

  • Les Miserables

    Ladj Ly's Cannes Prize-Winner 'Les Miserables' Is France's Oscar Submission

    Ladj Ly’s politically charged drama “Les Miserables,” which won the Jury Prize at Cannes, has been chosen by France’s Oscar committee to enter the international feature film race. In one of the most competitive years for French movies, “Les Miserables” beat out Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the 18th-century-set romance which won [...]

  • David Kehrl neuer Head of Acquisitions

    'Resident Evil's' Constantin Names Acquisitions, International Co-Production Chief

    David Kehrl is to join Constantin Film, Germany’s leading independent movie producer and distributor, as the head of acquisitions and international co-production. He will report to Martin Moszkowicz, chairman of the executive board at Constantin Film, which produces the “Resident Evil” movies. Starting in February, Kehrl will be responsible for the acquisition of international theatrical [...]

  • The Plague Season 2 Spanish TV

    Telefonica, Atresmedia to Create Content Factory Behemoth

    SAN SEBASTIAN  — In a game-changing move for Spanish-language production Telefonica, Europe’s third biggest telco, and Atresmedia, the original co-creators of “La Casa de Papel,” are uniting to create a new joint contents production giant. Aimed at gaining more scale and uniting talent relations – writers, directors and producers – the 50/50 joint venture will [...]

  • KKR-Backed German Media Conglomerate Finally Has

    KKR-Backed German Media Conglomerate Finally Has a Name: Leonine

    The KKR-backed German media company formed through the merger of Tele München Group, Universum Film, i&u TV, and Wiedemann & Berg Film finally has a name: Leonine. The company revealed its moniker Friday, saying that “Leonine” met its criteria of being associated with its home region of Bavaria and Munich, in southern Germany, and of [...]

  • Scattered Night

    San Sebastian New Directors Jihyoung Lee and Kim Sol Talk ‘Scattered Night’

    After taking the Korean Competition Grand Prize and the best acting award (Moon Seung-a) at the Jeonju Intl. Film Festival, “Scattered Night” now heads to San Sebastian’s New Directors selection. An intimate portrayal of a family whose members are deeply isolated from one another, the film follows two parents overwhelmed by their responsibilities, their own [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content