A childless couple make a bargain with their Romanian maid to serve as a surrogate. When the child inside her begins growing too quickly, it becomes clear that a sinister force is overtaking all of them.
Maren Louise Kaehne
Ellen Dorrit Petersen
Shelley takes some inspiration from devil classics like Rosemary’s Baby (check out the poster for proof) and The Omen. It grabs some of the best qualities of those films and brings these ideas to a very intimate, contained and unsettling character study.
Romanian Elena (Cosmina Stratan) is a young mother who went to school for accounting. Her baby daddy turned out to be a deadbeat, so in order to better herself and the life of her 5-year old child (who is living with Elena’s parents), she takes a housekeeping/nurse/maid job. It’s an all-around assistance position for childless couple Louise (Ellen Dorrit Peterson) and Kasper (Peter Christoffersen) somewhere in the Danish countryside. They have no electricity and no running water, so caring for a post-surgery Louise and keeping things on the up and up at the rural home are harder than Elena anticipated, but regardless, she performs her tasks with gusto and no-nonsense. A bond quickly forms between Louise and Elena. Louise confides that she is no longer able to have children, and so Elena eventually agrees to become the couple’s surrogate. In exchange, Elena will have her new apartment (so her young son can have his own room) paid for and she’ll end up being very comfortable. As the pregnancy continues, Elena begins to have disturbing nightmares and her body begins to change. Louise is there for Elena, but what can go wrong, does go wrong. Elena comes to believe that the baby growing inside her is not normal.
For Elena, Cosmina Stratan clearly studied up on how to effectively and believably carry something inhuman in her womb – by taking a page out of the Rosemary Woodhouse/Mia Farrow book of tricks. It’s amazing what good make-up can do, but the change in physicality has to come from the actor first and foremost. As the pregnancy takes its toll on Elena, Stratan is able to sell the fatigue, the sickness and the fear as things get worse. At the film’s beginning, Elena’s vibrant, healthy and a go-getter. It’s one of the film’s most poignant and heartbreaking details to see Elena deteriorate. Stratan gives us plenty to sympathize with and we genuinely like Elena. Elena’s doing a noble thing – taking a gig to care for chickens, chop firewood and live what is practically the life of an early pioneer – all in order to give her son a better life. On top of that, her selflessness knows no bounds, as she agrees to carry what is nothing more than a stranger’s unborn child. There’s a striking and tender scene between Elena and Louise as they quietly row a boat to the middle of the nearby lake. A highlight for both actresses.
Ellen Dorrit Petersen appears to be a sibling to The Omen remake’s Julia Stiles. Her on-screen chemistry with Stratan is lovely and true – there appears to be what can only be a bond between two females – certainly with pregnancy at the center of this tale. The two characters become sisters as they get to know one another, and eventually agree to team up for a surrogacy. Louise provides Elena with genuine love, affection and care. She wants this pregnancy to be a success. There’s a moment where Elena is so ill and so over this strange pregnancy, that she tells Louise, “I want to go home”. Louise pauses and says softly, “I’m sorry”. There’s a calm desperation to Louise, and Petersen is able to make her sympathetic as well – even in light of her selfish desperation. Of course, the film lets us know that there might be something else at work here.
There’s a bathtub sequence later on in the film, where Elena is nude, in the later stages of the pregnancy. I was flabbergasted by her pregnant belly. I couldn’t locate any trivia about the making of the film, but if I didn’t know better, Stratan could have actually been pregnant for these sequences. If not, then that was the most convincing pregnant belly appliance I’ve ever seen in a film. A weird detail to call out, but I was shocked by how real it looked! Take note, filmmakers – I’ve said it many times before, and Shelley is a prime example of such a success. The devil (ahem) is in the details, and if you want your audience to be completely sold – things like a strikingly real pregnant belly – are absolutely important. And of course, it’s not as if pregnancy was just an offhand plot point – so it had to sell!
The film switches gears for the third act, as our protagonist changes. It’s not where I thought the film might go, but when all is said and done, the direction of the story is appropriate. The film’s very slow. And other than the amazing vistas captured by the camera – there’s no spectacle. Shelley is very intimate and sadly, will find itself in the same boat as The Witch (which I adored). Many folks hated how slow that film was – and in its lack of broad action or spectacle, Shelley may well find itself on that same end of disappointment (not from me). But again – this film is about the mood, the uncertainty and the admirable performances. Don’t go in looking for The Ring-style scares or pulse-pounding fear – that’s not what Shelley is about.
Shelley provides no concrete answers. Sure, we can gather what has happened – based on the things we see and the actions/inactions of the characters, but we are never given any clues as to why or how. As always, it’s extremely subjective. Film by film, my mind will want more or less explanation. I think it’s a rarity where the filmmakers get it just right. In the case of this film, I sort of wanted a bit more. We know that the surrogacy made use of Louise’s frozen eggs – but what went wrong? Then again, had we been spoon-fed the filmmakers’ own beliefs or versions of the story, would I have been happy with that? As is – we can make some of our own determinations, but I would have liked to have been maneuvered into a more specific direction – but only slightly.
The film is as slow a burn as anything I’ve seen recently. There are no jump scares, no suspense. It’s definitely a study in character, atmosphere, paranoia and subtlety. And it exceeds expectation in all of those categories. In other words, Shelley is a rousing success.
Shelley is making its way across the festival landscape — including a recent showing at Canada’s Fantasia Film Festival. It’s also currently available on VOD.