The story of an 18-year-old woman writing one of the worldâ€™s most defining horror novels is a tantalizing proposition, and a quick scan of Mary Shelleyâ€™s exhaustive Wikipedia page clues one into an unconventional origins tale. But in this faithful new drama, named after the author, thereâ€™s a dogged, and perhaps lazy, belief that merely reciting the details will be enough, an added spark never quite arriving in tow.
Mary (Elle Fanning) is a wayward teen spending more time reading scary literature than helping out with chores back at home. She clashes with stepmother Mary Jane (Joanne Froggatt) but shares a warm relationship with stepsister Claire (Bel Powley) and father William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), a renowned political philosopher and novelist. She also shares a strident streak with her late mother, the forward-thinking feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. When Mary encounters handsome and rebellious poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), her life takes a dramatic turn that takes her across Europe, encountering love, betrayal, tragedy and, ultimately, inspiration.
As the English language debut of Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first woman to ever shoot a Saudi Arabian feature film â€“ the acclaimed comedy Wadjda â€“ thereâ€™s something respectable and sturdy about Mary Shelley. Fanning is a convincing actor, no matter what the role, and she puts in a solid turn here, vulnerable yet feisty, romantic yet rational, and we can understand her internal processing of the events that led her to write Frankenstein. In familiar period territory, thereâ€™s also an interesting focus on a side of early 19th-century society we donâ€™t often get to see: raucous, hard-drinking teenage debauchery.
Throughout thereâ€™s a debate over the efficacy of an open relationship and thereâ€™s a loose, freewheeling attitude towards sexuality. But the film stops short when it could go much further. Thereâ€™s an overwhelming politeness, an awareness that this will be aimed at an audience who still prefer their costume dramas to be family-friendly. It means then certain elements are sanitized, such as the character of Lord Byron whose bisexuality is hinted at but never explored, and the sex scenes, which are suggested rather than visible.
As the other two members of the party, Booth and Powley acquit themselves well enough but as with Fanning, theyâ€™re hampered by a script that offers mere surface characterization and some clunky dialogue. While the intricacies of their swinging sexual relationships prove intriguing, they end up dominating so much of the film that the far more interesting story surrounding the creation and controversial ownership of Frankenstein feels like something of an afterthought. Shelleyâ€™s mistreatment by the literary elite because of her gender is a compelling, uniquely frustrating element and the film deprives us of the suitably grand exploration that it deserves. Itâ€™s a long film but at times, it feels like it could have benefited from the extended structure of a mini-series.
Mary Shelley is a diverting enough biopic that features decent performances through an often vivid lens, but given the unusual facts of the authorâ€™s life, a far more offbeat and far less rigid film could have been made here. Shelleyâ€™s fascination with the macabre and her progressive feminist ideals feel at odds with such a conventionally told tale. Al-Mansour has all of the pieces but she doesnâ€™t quite bring her film to life.
- Mary Shelley is screening at the Toronto film festival with a release date yet to be announced