In a remote house completely off the grid, Louise and her husband Kasper hire a Romanian maid to help with house chores and take care of their chickens. As the bond between Louise and Elena, the maid, grows, Louise asks her to carry a child for her as she cannot do so herself. After careful considerations, Elena accepts. Unfortunately, this is where the honeymoon phase ends and things take a turn for the odd and creepy.
The film is directed by Ali Abbasi who co-wrote with Maren Luise Kaehne. Together they created believable characters in an interesting setting as they live completely off the grid without any technology but make due with what they have. In this film, it’s a choice by the characters and not imposed in any way. The characters have different backgrounds and speak different languages, leading them to speak English to understand each other which is a nice way to get a European film shot in English for a good part of it. The differences in cultures also add nicely to the depth of the characters.
Unfortunately, these characters are given very little to do that is of interest. Even when Elena’s pregnancy takes a turn for the weird, it’s barely enough to keep the attention which is too bad as it could have been great had it been exploited better, a great take on pregnancy horror, a sub-genre we see very little of (Grace, A l’interieur, Rosemary’s Baby), that fell flat without enough happening or strong enough happenings.
The very small cast keeps the film feeling intimate and minimal with three strong lead performances. In the part of Louise, Ellen Dorrit Petersen brings a calm and quiet, yet strong presence. She handles things beautifully when it would have been so easy to go into overacting in a movie with this subject. Together with actress Cosmina Stratan as Elena, they build a visible friendship and bond and then, when things change, they show the strain between them without saying much. Supporting these two performances is Peter Christoffersen as Louise’s husband Kasper. He does well with the smaller part he is given. His emotions feel rawer, less controlled. The rest of the small cast is also talented and believable in their parts.
Shelley is another film with two cinematographers working in tandem where which scene is whose is indistinguishable. Nadim Carlsen and Sturla Brandth Grovlen do this while bringing serenity to the scenes, particularly the outdoors sequences. The film looks peaceful, even once the creep factor is turned up. Many scenes on the lake could be turned into a tourism add for overworked city folks.
Supporting all of this is the music by Martin Dirkov which is subtle yet effective. Some of the scenes when things are going oddly and supernatural elements may be involved, the music bring home the creepiness while not becoming overbearing or telling viewers what to feel.
While Shelley is an interesting take on the pregnancy horror sub-genre, the film is very slow with very little going on, making it less interesting than it had potential for. The less is more approach usually works for this reviewer, however here it was much too little and lead to an expected ending with very little pay off.
Fantasia International Film Festival ran from July 14th until August 3rd, 2016 and will be back in the summer of 2017.