Elisabeth Moss always finds herself in the most emotionally aggravating situations, doesn’t she? She spends the entirety of “The Handmaid’s Tale (2017–2021)” traversing a strongly patriarchal, totalitarian theonomic state. In “Us (2019),” she comes across her doppelgänger, who is the result of a government experiment to control humans, and then gets killed by her. In “The Invisible Man” (2020), she is chased by her abusive husband in, you guessed it, a futuristic invisibility suit. In “Shirley (2020)“, the character of Elisabeth Moss is haunted by the mere presence of a couple in her house while she tries to finish the 1951 novel “Hangsaman.” And now, in “Shining Girls (2022)”, she is haunted by a serial killer who doesn’t seem to age.
Created by Silka Luisa, “Shining Girls” is based on Lauren Beukes’s novel, “The Shining Girls.” It opens in the 1960s, when a young girl (Maizie Landfear) is visited by Harper (Jamie Bell). He talks to her about the toys she’s playing with and de-wings the bee she has caught. And then he proceeds to give her a wooden Pegasus while saying that she’ll take it because she always takes it. The narrative then jumps to the ’90s and follows that girl, who now goes by the name Kirby Mazrachi (Elisabeth Moss) and works at a newspaper outlet. We are also introduced to Dan (Wagner Moura), who also works at the newspaper outlet as a reporter and is following up on a recent murder. Kirby comes to know about that and feels that that murder was the work of the same person who had assaulted her a few years ago.
In keeping with the theme of the introductory paragraph, let’s talk about Elisabeth Moss and her performance in “Shining Girls.” Way before she says how she’s running away from her past, Moss translates the fear, and anxiety Kirby feels every time she steps out of the house. It is the movement in her eyes, the heavily measured steps, the body language, and the shakiness in her voice that convey her instability. That’s why when she says that her assaulter could be any person on the street because she doesn’t remember his face, you genuinely understand Kirby’s paranoia. Another curveball that’s thrown at Kirby is that she can’t discern between reality and fiction. Small things like the position of her desk in her office or the doctor who is examining her wounds warp significantly, leaving Kirby in a constant state of confusion. And the smart thing that Moss does is that, instead of conveying confusion, she exhibits acceptance that this new reality is her life now.
Although a lot of judgment cannot be passed based on one episode, it’s safe to say that Jamie Bell absolutely nails the serial killer vibe. There’s a gauntness in his physicality that is offset by his childlike voice and innocent expression. As a huge fan of “The Adventures of Tintin (2011),” it’s tough not to see Bell as Tintin whenever he shows up on-screen, thereby making it all the more difficult to watch him commit all those horrific crimes. Wagner Moura, who catapulted to worldwide fame after his turn as Pablo Escobar in “Narcos (2015–2017),” plays a truth-seeking journalist here, which is, again, tough to digest because his face is so synonymous with his role as the ruthless Escobar. But jokes apart, he brings a sense of kindness to this investigation as he not only tries to understand what Kirby is going through, but also comes to terms with the ferocity of Harper’s crimes. Seriously, in this day and age, it’s tough to convincingly play a journalist without making him conniving, and Moura does it.
Setting any movie or show in a non-contemporary period always comes with its challenges. That said, cinematographer Robert McLachlan, production designer Kelly McGehee, art director Martha Sparrow, and costume designer Sonu Mishra do an excellent job of transporting us to the ’90s. Although I am not aware of the behind-the-scenes details, going by a dinner scene with Kirby and Dan, it looks like the showrunners have emulated the grainy, fluorescent lighting that was heavily featured in movies in the ’90s, like “Heat (1995)” and “Fight Club (1999)“. Yes, it’s a very hyper-specific detail that many will probably miss or not even care about. But it does sell that quintessential ’90s cinematic look. Hugo Diaz’s editing is exquisite, with some bone-chilling match cuts between Kirby and Harper to insinuate that they’re connected in some way, even if they are physically far from each other. Apart from that, this episode of “Shining Girls” is beautifully paced, despite the existence of jarring moments that upend the smooth flow of the plot.
Going by this one episode, “Shining Girls” certainly shows promise. As per the book, there’s a whole time-traveling aspect to it, which explains why Jamie Bell’s character doesn’t age. Hence, it’ll be interesting to see how Silka Luisa and her team handle that volatile storytelling device. The cast, featuring Moss, Bell, and Moura, has proven time and again that they’re as adept at pulling off complex roles in 100-minute films as they are at arresting your attention over the course of multiple episodes. And there’s no doubt in my mind that they’re set to do so again in “Shining Girls.” On top of that, the show looks like a million bucks, which means that Apple TV+ has yet another winner in their bag.
“Shining Girls” is a 2022 science fiction drama series created by Silka Luisa. Its first episode was screened at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. And it will premiere on Apple TV+ on April 29th, with new episodes dropping weekly.