Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Haifa al-Mansou
Stars: Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Stephen Dillane, Maisie Williams, Tom Sturridge, Ben Hardy, Joanne Froggatt, Hugh O’Connor.
Mary Shelley Unbound?
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is the rebellious teen and author of the celebrated Gothic classic novel Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus, the story of an egotistical scientist who creates life and pays a terrible price for his hubris. Her novel has influenced horror and science fiction authors for the best part of two centuries. She also brought a feminine perspective to horror fiction. Shelley, who died at the age of 53 from a brain tumour, also wrote short stories, essays, biographies, and she also railed against the limitations that polite male dominated 19th century English society placed on women and their behaviour. She was a fascinating woman, and her life deserves better than this somewhat dull and pedestrian biopic.
Mary Shelley is a romantic drama and a decidedly female driven project. This is the first feature script written by Australian writer Emma Jensen, and while it covers the illicit romance between Mary and Shelley in some detail it offers little insight into the creative process behind Frankenstein itself. The film has been directed by Haifa al-Mansour, the first ever female director from Saudi Arabia. Her debut feature was 2012’s Wadjda, the deceptively simple story of a young girl eager to win a Koran recital competition so that she could win a bicycle. Girls were basically forbidden to ride bicycles. It is easy to see why Jensen’s story about a female rebelling against the societal norms of her time resonated so strongly with her.
Elle Fanning (from Little Miss Sunshine, etc) portrays Shelley in this biopic that traces her early years and depicts some of the tragic events that shaped her life and led to the creation of the immortal monster. Raised by her widowed father William Godwin (Stephen Dillane, from Game Of Thrones, etc), a noted philosopher and author, Mary was fascinated by the macabre and often hid in the crowded bookshelves of her home to read scary stories.
Then Mary met the dashing and radical poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth, from the 2013 remake of Romeo & Juliet, etc), who was almost a 19th century equivalent of a rock star. Besotted with him she began a torrid affair, even though he was still married at the time. The affair led to her being ostracised from upper crust society. She married Shelley in 1816 but the pair faced poverty and hardships. In 1816 the couple spent the summer in Geneva with fellow poet, the rakish Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge, from Far From The Madding Crowd, etc) and Lord Polidori (Ben Hardy, from tv soap EastEnders, etc) and Mary’s stepsister Claire (Bel Powley, from A Royal Night Out, etc). The hedonistic time led to Byron challenging Mary to write her own horror story, which ultimately led to her creating Frankenstein. Initially though, due to the misogynistic views of the time, Mary couldn’t publish the book under her own name, so it was released anonymously.
This hedonistic period in Geneva was also covered by Ken Russell, the enfant terrible of British cinema, in his 1986 film Gothic, which offered a fictitious treatment of that meeting. He breathed more life into the relationships between the characters and their unusual and sexually charged relationships. Given Russell’s predilection to shock his audiences, Gothic was also far more edgy and sexy than this oh so polite version of events.
Fanning, who has virtually grown up on screen and in the shadow of her older sister, delivers a strong performance as Mary, depicting her as a woman ahead of her time. She brings a mix of defiance, rebelliousness and a hint of vulnerability to her performance, and is easily the best thing in this dull costume drama. Powley brings some energy to her role as Mary’s step sister.
Mary suffers a series of misfortunes that makes for fairly grim viewing, and Al-Mansour suffuses the material with a suitably dour and unrelentingly sombre tone. This potentially fascinating story is let down by languid direction and stolid pacing. The story never quite sparks as a drama.
Technically, the film looks good, with great costumes from Siobhan Cahill, and cinematographer David Ungaro (Les Miserables, Black Robe, etc) gives it a lush visual quality. The film was shot on locations in the UK and Luxembourg.