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Shining Girls - Review

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Based on Lauren Beukes’ terrific novel; Shining Girls is yet another winner for AppleTV+, a streamer that have transformed in the space of a few short months into the most reliable one out there: Slow Horses, great, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, great, The Afterparty, great, you get the picture – this might have been my most anticipated series of the lot – having read Beukes’ novel back when it came out and having the name attached feels like a killer start.

First thing’s first; Shining Girls is not your typical thriller. Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, it inserts a time-travel narrative when a Chicago reporter is attacked by a serial killer in a brutal twist that follows a lifetime of character-driven faults. The core premise of the show is a spoiler in itself – but the show takes a radical turn from the book to the point when you’re best left going in blind – but rest assured; this is not another case of having seen everything here before. Much of this is due to the heavy lifting, both in front of and occasionally behind the camera, by Elisabeth Moss; who has guided The Handmaid’s Tale and The Invisible Man. One of Hollywood’s most reliable stars it seemed only a matter of time before AppleTV+ cast her in something, and Shining Girls feels like a perfect casting: Moss is so good at playing damaged characters and brings an air of depth and quality to Kirby Mazrachi, who lives with her mom, played by Amy Brenneman. Six years earlier Kirby was attacked and left for dead by someone who was never caught – and it’s shaped her entire life since, more withdrawn than she was before. This is a story that's not treated lightly by Shining Girls' creative team and it feels given the care and attention that it deserves.

You have the ingredients for a fairly standard conventional thriller when you throw in Dan, Wagner Moura’s reporter; Jamie Bell’s serial killer and Phillipa Soo’s Jin-Sook in the all-star cast as the fairly standard TV detective drama tropes, but it isn’t long before it not only do these characters have more depth than they first appear but the story is not what it seems – the first episode; although taking its time to get there, ends on a pretty shocking cliff-hanger that creates an instant narrative hook. It’s the only downside about the first episode that Shining Girls requires a little patience as those knowing nothing of the source material may dismiss it as something they’ve seen before; but the second episode opens with a twist: Kirby has jumped realities seemingly into another dimension, where she’s face to face with – rather than being stabbed – a new boyfriend – who was told by Kirby that her mom wasn’t being invited over tonight.

It’s a shock – understandably, and Kirby starts freaking out when more arrive, plunging her into a completely alien reality of her own. The journey is brief, short – she glimpses of a life where she’s married to Marcos; and then she’s pulled back to her own world. She’s experiencing little changes in reality that put her on edge – she has a different haircut, a different variation of characters trapped in the same puzzle. It’s not clear yet as to where the answers lie; the why isn’t there yet. All of this is presented in a manner that feels heavily influenced by David Fincher – there are shades of Zodiac all over the stylistic touches for this one. One of the plus sides about it being stretched out to a film is that Shining Girls has room to breathe – it’s not crowded by the feature length restrictions and takes its time to get going; deliberately slow, anchoring it around its protagonist.

It allows Moss the chance to explore a character on multiple accounts; Shining Girls was filmed out of sequence in different orders meaning that she had to juggle the different realities at different stages of production in a shooting schedule already hard to get consistently right, but Moss nails it. It’s her Orphan Black – although don’t go in expecting clones; but the shift in reality reminded me a lot of the Tatiana Maslany starrer and fans of shows like that, Dark and the rest of Moss’ filmography will find themselves right at home; it’s a rich world that Silka Luisa has penned, lending her production experience from Strange Angel and as a supervising producer on an episode of Halo. A lot of the heavy lifting of the narrative would live or die based on the conviction that Moss brings to the role as it’s her show; and it’s to her credit that the X-Files of it all is completely convincing and believable; and the show never loses its momentum; unravelling like a mystery box to answer all mysteries. Individual episodes are directed by Michelle Maclaren, and Shining Girls benefits from having a creative talent whose experience who has worked on series like Game of Thrones and Westworld in the past; HBO heavy hitters. Shining Girls feels appropriately cinematic as a result.

Emotional heartache is the biggest strength of Shining Girls, it’s a fantastic character study that really shines in that department. There’s never too much attention given to Jamie Bell’s antagonist in the early stages but enough to make you aware of how creepily unsettling he is - and the script balances that with the revelations that it feeds you about the plot that require a degree of patience, you never feel one step ahead of Kirby; finding out things as she finds them out unless you’re in a situation where you’ve read the book, but the show plays with things differently than the book does – faithful enough to be a true adaption but inventive enough to offer something fresh.

If there is perhaps one complaint about these early episodes it is that Shining Girls could have almost benefited from being a feature film although there – as mentioned above – are times where it is both a benefit and a curse. The same can be said about The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey and arguably; as great as they both are, Slow Horses too. But there is enough weight in the episodes released so far allows it to keep you hooked and there from start to finish, and releasing three episodes at once in true AppleTV+ tradition is a good call that pays off, giving audiences enough time to adjust to its pacing and accept that it never once feels exploitative in its subject matter as it never ranges too far into pulp.

The first three episodes of Shining Girls are available to watch on AppleTV+ now; with resulting episodes to air on Fridays.

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