D: Haifaa al-Mansour / 120m
Cast: Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Stephen Dillane, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Joanne Froggatt, Ben Hardy, Maisie Williams
London, 1813. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Fanning) is the sixteen year old daughter of bookseller and political philosopher, William Godwin (Dillane). Mary is wilful, and more interested in reading and writing than contributing to the household chores, and this in turn causes bad feelings with her stepmother (Froggatt). Things come to a head and Mary is sent to stay with one of her father’s friends in Scotland. There she meets the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Booth), and an attraction develops between them. When Mary returns to London, Shelley follows her and their relationship deepens, even though Mary learns Shelley is married and has a child. Leaving her family home along with her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Powley), the pair and Shelley at first live in less than impressive surroundings until Shelley comes into some money. An invitation through Claire to stay with notorious poet and philanderer Lord Byron (Sturridge) near Geneva in the summer of 1816 comes just at the right time: Shelley’s creditors are literally knocking at the door. Once there, a challenge from Byron to write a ghost story led Mary to begin writing the novel that would seal her fame and her reputation…
A heritage picture with all the attendant tropes that go with it, Mary Shelley focuses on the early romantic life of the creator of Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, and does its best to show the trials and tribulations that made up Mary’s life, but without connecting them convincingly with the writing of her classic novel. With any historical biography, the problem lies in recreating an acceptable and authentic sounding series of events to illustrate how a novel, a painting, or a similar work of art came into being. Emma Jensen’s original screenplay does its best – there’s the loss of Mary’s mother shortly after she was born, a theatrical display of galvanism, querulous thoughts on an afterlife – but it can’t quite make us believe that Mary was destined to write her “ghost story” in the way that the script would have us accept. There’s both encouragement and discouragement from Shelley, Mary’s own determination to prove a patriarchal society that it’s dismissal of the efforts of women is wrong, and inevitably, the support of her father at a crucial point in the novel’s publication. That these things happened is not necessarily in dispute, but the way in which they’re laid out is unfortunately quite mundane.
This proves a detriment to the movie overall, with al-Mansour’s efforts held in check by the demands of the feel and shape of the narrative, which is respectful without being passionate, and fluid though without feeling driven. There are the requisite setbacks and tragedies on display, and they come at their expected moments, and so much so that you can tick them off as you watch. This leaves Fanning somewhat adrift in a movie that her peformance dominates, and which allows her to show a greater range and skill in her portrayal of Mary than is usually the case. In support, Booth is a gifted yet emotionally petulant Shelley, Powley is terrific as the envious stepsister trying to make her own mark through an unfortunate dalliance with Byron, and Dillane does seemingly little, but to such good effect that he’s the focus of every scene he’s in. al-Mansour, following up her debut feature Wadjda (2012), is a great choice as director but again is defeated by the apparent requirements for making a period picture. It’s ironic then, that a movie about the creator of a literary figure brought to life by lightning, lacks the spark needed to bring it’s own tale fully to life.
Rating: 6/10 – it looks good (thanks to David Ungaro’s sterling cinematography), and it’s replete with good performances, but Mary Shelley is ultimately too pedestrian in nature and presentation to linger in the memory; the romance between Mary and Percy fizzles out in a perfunctory “that’s done” fashion, her stance as a proto-feminist (and the nominal ease with which she overcomes the gender prejudice of the times) is clunky, and is undermined by the movie’s end, where her fame and fortune is guaranteed by the intervention of her lover and her father – and there’s further irony for you.