Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and Kaspar (Peter Christoffersen) live in a house deep inside the woods, adjacent to a beautiful lake. Following an operation Louise hires a maid, Elena (Cosmina Stratan), to help with the housework. Elena is a Romanian immigrant and takes the job so she can buy an apartment where she and her son, Nicu, can live. Her face is youthful and innocent. Elena is taken aback when she is informed that Louise and Kaspar live without electricity and running water. Moreover, she observes an elderly man with long silvery hair and beard performing a spiritual ritual on Louise to rid her of negative energies.
Although the setup of Ali Abbasi‘s Shelley seems to signify unease and danger to Elena, Louise and Kaspar are kind and gentle even when Elena expresses disbelief over dinner about the couple’s way of life and their belief in certain energies that govern one’s health and well being.
As Louise and Elena become close, Elena asks her why she does not have any children. Louise reveals to her that her womb had to be removed following a miscarriage. Louise asks Elena how long she intends to stay with her and her husband and she answers that she must stay for three years in order to have enough money for the apartment. Louise is surprised but offers to Elena that if she bears Louise’s child, she doesn’t have to work as a maid anymore and she can have the money she needs following the child’s birth.
Elena’s pregnancy is depicted at a slow-pace that depletes from the fear or concern that one might have about her and her child. Unlike in Rosemary’s Baby, prenatal time and care is as normal- there are no strange potions that Elena is forced to drink or doubts about the doctor she visits. Elena does not fear pregnancy the way Kaspar fears upcoming fatherhood because of her bearing Nicu in years past. Nonetheless, the two share horrific dreams relating to the child.
Over time, Elena’s face attains a sickly pallor and she complains of headaches and uneasiness. Louise is concerned for Elena, but we begin to see her determination and maternal care for the child supersede that of her care for Elena. The mystery of the film becomes whether or not the child is evil. When she is finally born, Shelley increases in ambiguity, evading this question. The transformations that Elena and Louise undergo as a pregnant woman and as a mother-to-be are apparent all throughout Shelley but are ultimately unfulfilling in regards to providing insight about the child.