I understand, entirely, if you are a bit done with murderers – serial, one-offs, opportunistic, take your pick from the array forever before us on our screens. Or simple terrorisers of women. But I would urge, even if that is your current position, to give Shining Girls (Apple TV+) a try, though the premise may be unalluring.
The premise, taken from the 2013 novel of nearly the same name by Lauren Beukes, is that six years ago, Kirby Mazrachi (Elisabeth Moss) survived a near-fatal attack by an unknown assailant who was never caught. Since then she has been experiencing shifting realities. Sometimes the alterations are small and a pet cat is now a pet dog, or she returns to a different desk at work; sometimes they are large and she finds her hot mess of a mother reborn in a more literal sense than usual as an evangelical Christian, or that Kirby herself is now married to a man called Marcus instead of still isolated and single. One constant is that she is always a newspaper archivist with the Sun Times (her story, which is more central than in the book, is set in early 90s Chicago), the closest she could manage to her ambition of becoming a reporter in the wake of the life-changing assault.
When the body of a young woman with seemingly identical but this time fatal wounds to Kirby’s is discovered in the city’s sewers, she joins forces with reporter Dan (Wagner Moura) to investigate and track down what seems to be, despite impossible timelines crisscrossing decades, a serial killer. The viewer is far ahead of them here – possibly too far, making the pair seem slightly dim rather than dogged – because we have seen the mysterious man at work. The man is Harper (played very unsettlingly and very brilliantly by Jamie Bell) and he seems unstoppable as he chooses his next victim, astronomer Jin-Sook (Phillipa Soo), whose job hints at the physics and metaphysics that will play a part in unravelling the knotty plot.
Moss is, as ever, ferociously intense and attentive to the minutest shift in her character’s mood or suffering. She is unflinching and unsentimental in every role she takes, and you couldn’t hope for a better anchor for a project that could easily otherwise become hokey. Time travel is frequently less of a high concept than a deep trap, which is why Russian Doll – also grounded by a powerhouse performance by a female lead – remains such a marvel.
When you add Moss’s remarkable, nuanced performance to the slightly slow pacing and the audience being arguably too far ahead of the protagonists, Shining Girls works better as a character study than a thriller (though it’s certainly worth watching as the latter). Kirby’s constant renegotiation of a world that changes without notice or permission around her is as fine an evocation of the profound and lingering results of trauma as you’ll see. To live a life suddenly full of unknowns, with the familiar made unfamiliar, the trustworthy now tainted by terrible knowledge, is something anyone who has been assaulted will recognise. One reality is replaced by another and another and another as you take two steps forwards and one back towards a new normality. Even as the female victim count adds up, Shining Girls keeps its integrity and never backs away from this underlying truth.