Mary Shelley (UK-Luxembourg-US-Ireland, 2017)

Musing upon life and death

The choice of Haifaa Al-Mansour to direct this slice of English Gothic is interesting; she was the first female Saudi to direct a film and this is the follow-up to her debut, the excellent Wadjda. Presumably the producers were attracted by her outsider’s eye (and of course her talent) though I’m not sure what she has added as the material is presented in a straightforward, and efficient, manner. Al-Mansour is also credited with ‘additions’ to Emma Jensen’s debut script. My knowledge of Mary Shelley is limited but it’s good to get her perspective on the Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron.

If the script sometimes leans towards a 21st century view of gender, the film’s set in the early 19th, then that is forgivable. It even uses the term ‘gender’ when ‘sex’ would have been the word of the time. We are, after all, observing the past through modern eyes; no one can truly recreate historical times. There’s no doubt that Mary (Elle Fanning) was a remarkable woman: we meet her at 16, daughter of the feminist Mary Wollstonecroft Godwin who died just after birthing her. Her dad, William (Stephen Dillane), was also a radical but the film shows he is somewhat nimbyish about the emancipation of his daughter.

Percy (Douglas Booth) is portrayed as a ‘pretty boy’ who follows his libido though he has more about him than simply being a ‘player’. That Mary’s masterpiece, the novel Frankenstein, was initially attributed to him shows the sexism of the time and he’s portrayed as unhappy about it. Tom Sturridge’s Lord Byron, on the other hand, is entirely heartless with women; I didn’t find the performance convincing (too much kohl?).

Probably due to budget limitations, there’s no sense that they are in Switzerland when Mary concocts her famous and hideous tale. I wasn’t even sure they were abroad until the challenge to write a ghost story arose. While Gothic graveyards are given their due, it was a mistake not to show the awesome Swiss peaks as an inspiration on Shelly’s famous novel. On the other hand, the influence of popular theatre presenting the ‘miracle’ of Galvanism is well portrayed.

Elle Fanning is excellent as Mary, combining youthful vulnerability with fiery defiance. Bel Powley, as her sister, makes her mark as someone determined to not be left behind by her brilliant sibling. It avoids the problem that many biopics have of trying to cram a life into a short narrative as the focus is on the key moment in Mary Shelley’s life, meeting Percy and publishing Frankenstein.

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