Synopsis – Mary Shelley is a movie starring Elle Fanning, Maisie Williams, and Douglas Booth. The love affair between poet Percy Shelley and 18 year old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, which resulted in Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein.
My Take – We all have hear about Frankenstein monster right? A titular character from one of the greatest novels ever written! Originally published back in 1818, ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’, became an almost immediate sensation, mainly as it was brilliant executed and considered significantly ahead of its time upon release. But how much do we know about it’s undeniably a fascinating historical author who wrote a defining piece of Gothic horror and her creative inspiration? While mainstream media has adapted the novel into various forms of arts and entertainment ranging from comic books, blockbuster films, games to theatrical plays, it is a surprise to know that mother of science fiction has no definitive biopic.
Here, director/co-writer Haifaa Al Mansour, the first Saudi female filmmaker ever to direct a Hollywood production, aims to give us a vulnerable glimpse into the the life of 18-year-old wife of celebrated poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and how the literary classic was the product of a restlessly creative mind, emotional turbulence and stifling Georgian social pressures. While the film is undeniably beautifully produced with some strong performances and wonderful images, the film sadly falls short of its expectations, as director al-Mansour is more interested in the trailblazing of Mary as a female author, than in the creation of Frankenstein. What’s worse, it feels like an utterly familiar biopic, much more in the veins of other Victorian era adaptations.
While the film boats a stylish theme and latches onto what makes biopics engaging and double down on those aspects to create something vivid and moving, it unfortunately, remains stale in comparison to size of the figure the film is portraying. In simpler terms, it feels more like the world’s biggest and most beautiful Frankenstein book report ever made, when it could have been so much better.
Set in London’s 1813, the story follows Mary (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old idealist who feels out of place in and stifled by society, with its strict rules, standards of social politeness and institutions such as marriage. Raised by her father, William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), a political philosopher, and her step mother (Joanne Froggatt), after her mother, the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, died soon after her birth, Mary she finds her thrills by surreptitiously reading ghost stories in the graveyard, while shirking her responsibilities in her father’s bookstore and household.
While encouraged by her father to find her own writing voice, her world turns upside down when she is introduced to Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), a 21-year-old dashingly handsome poet and sparks fly between the both. Even though he’s married to Harriet (Ciara Charteris), Percy doesn’t believe in monogamy, partially because he made a bad choice, partially on an ideological level, and partially because he’s young and hormonal. Mary is drawn to his creativity and unorthodox lifestyle, and it doesn’t take much to convince her to run away with wordsmith, with her step-sister Claire (Bel Powley) in tow, who is also seeking more adventure. However, their idealistic dreams of living, loving and writing quickly curdle.
Percy is essentially a trust fund kid, and when his father cuts him off, he’s soon borrowing money to keep afloat. When Mary becomes pregnant, his roving eye turns to Claire, but she’s smitten with Percy’s pal Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), who also chooses to live decadently, but as a writer whose work actually sells, he can afford to be scandalous. However, that’s a luxury that Mary, Percy, and Claire can’t indulge and their bliss becomes deeply strained. But, when Lord Byron challenges everyone to write a ghost story, she draws upon her experience of abandonment, her fascination with mortality, and her tempestuous relationship with Percy to write and publish the immediately popular Frankenstein.
Director Haifaa al-Mansour’s film is a great many things. It’s moody and gray; it’s lush and drowned in fog, elevated by a score that bursts from the screen, engulfing the viewers into a cocoon of atmospheric bliss. Traveling down the bumpy road that is the biopic path, director al-Mansour feeds off of that familiarity and unconditional narrative beats but engages us with a tremendous heroine. Lovers of Gothic romance (like myself) will especially will be entranced by the presentation and emotional darkness of the film. Successful bio-pics of great literary figures are generally character studies more than plot-driven narratives. From a literary history viewpoint, the film’s greatest achievement is in showing how Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s destructive monster was itself the embodiment of Mary’s emotional world, and as director al-Mansour has already proven herself a deft storyteller when it comes to coming of age stories about girls stuck in oppressive environments with the excellent Wadjda, this one just further proves the point. Her affection for the character and respect she has for her talent shines through.
This film also takes great liberties in dramatizing the life of the author prior to her writing the book. It does so fairly well to the point of discomfort in how women were viewed and treated in those intellectually stimulating but socially dark times. The climate of England and surrounding areas was one of bigotry, inequality and extreme prejudice. It presents the despair of such times quite well, drawing the viewer into the potential feelings of the author when writing the book. Written by Emma Jensen, the film sinks into melodrama at times, and the first hour, which focuses on Mary and Percy’s love story starts to sag, and some viewers might be left wondering where Mary’s famous monster is.
She scribbles in montages and narrative overlays, but supporting characters often inquire condescendingly about her writing abilities. After all, accomplished authors surrounded Mary from birth. But this film promised a coming of age tale, not an absolute on the writing process. Here, the film suggests that the eponymous writer’s classic novel Frankenstein is the result of the influence of men on her life. But it’s not any kind of love, from romance to heartbreak that inspires Mary; it is men’s inescapable cruelty that drives her to write out of anger.
Biopics of women artists often go one of two ways: sexist revisionism (in which a woman artist’s talent and agency are replaced by romance with a man) or feminist critique and director Al-Mansour’s film, toes the line between these two. Occasionally slipping from her thesis, that it is sexism rather than love that inspires Mary, and director al-Mansour makes a concerted effort to give her due while placing critique upon the men around her who encounter little of the judgement and few of the obstacles that she does.
However, with a tendency to circle the same character conflicts without ever full resolution, the script might’ve benefited by reminding the viewers why we were supposed to be rooting for Mary and Percy’s relationship to survive. Similarly, if they’re to put so much emphasis on his conviction in free love, it might’ve done his character better to mention his other humanitarian concerns when he’s preaching his ideals regarding open love and relationships. For example, Percy is totally fine with an open relationship and when he hears about his friend advancing to Mary. Conflicts with Shelley explode and end in a slamming door extremely quickly, and often without much justification. Yes, their relationship has been imperfect and troubling from the start, but it seems that Mary and Percy fight for the sake of fighting especially, when it comes time to publish her work.
Sure, the film is clever by not trying to cover too much of the author’s life so as not to spread it too thin but it certainly could’ve given Mary more time to develop separate from her romantic entanglements. It’s also both surprising and disappointing that director al-Mansour chooses to end her film with the reunion of Percy and Mary. Also, the final section of the film feels slightly rushed and out of turn. We see how Mary’s struggles to find a publisher due to her gender are indeed valid and historically appropriate, but seem to occur as an afterthought in the course of the film. It also seems that Mary’s struggle to publish Frankenstein, and the ultimate need to initially publish under an anonymous pen are quickly resolved by a conversation among men, as opposed to by her own volition.
Thankfully between all this the production and the performances stand tall. Backed by a swelling soundtrack, the film’s atmosphere, the lush Scottish countryside, the foggy London streets, and the alternately posh and dilapidated homes the struggling authors inhabit, are all photographed beautifully, as are the gorgeous shots of scenery and starry skies. The story is of course, powered entirely by Elle Fanning‘s brilliant performance. With an extraordinary expressive range for a young actress, she can transform herself from pain and anguish to romantic ecstasy with a simple transcendent smile that jumps off the screen. Douglas Booth, who was mostly drunk delivered a fine performance. He found that common ground to match Elle Fanning’s immersive acting skills. Tom Sturridge as Lord Byron is appealing and fun to watch, while Bel Powley is charismatic as always. She delivers the film’s most unexpectedly moving moment when she speaks to the universal appeal of Frankenstein’s lonely monster. The surprise of the cast is the young Ben Hardy (X-Men: Apocalypse), who manages to hold his own with the more famous actors with the juicier roles with a steadiness of character and quiet resolve that’s quite charismatic in its own way. In smaller roles, Stephen Dillane, Joanne Froggatt, Ciara Charteris, and Maisie Williams also standout. On the whole, ‘Mary Shelley‘ is a competent romantic period drama infused with flaws yet heralded by strong performances and a solid production.
Directed – Haifaa Al-Mansour
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 120 minutes