Mary Shelley (2017)

Mary Shelley
Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Writer: Emma Jensen, Haifaa Al-Mansour
Cast: Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Joanne Froggatt, Stephen Dillane, Maisie Williams, Derek Riddell, Hugh O’Conor, Ben Hardy
Seen on: 9.1.2019

Mary (Elle Fanning) is the daughter of two authors, William Godwin (Stephen Dillane) and Mary Wollstonecraft. Her mother, unfortunately passed early and her father’s new wife (Joanne Froggatt) is not easy on her, leaving Mary at even more of a loss than your average 16-year-old. That’s when she meets Percy (Douglas Booth), a charming poet who intrigues her. They fall in love and together with Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley) they run away to Geneva to meet Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) and Polidori (Ben Hardy). The five of them spend an intense time together – a time that includes a literary contest that pushes Mary to write her first novel, Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley, unfortunately, didn’t really come together, although I am uncertain what went wrong here – they had all the right ingredients to make a feast and ended with a slightly bland meal that didn’t sate. (I promise I won’t be stretching this metaphor any further.)

The film poster showing half of Mary's (Elle Fanning) face.

I’m not the one to insist that biopics have to be 100% historically accurate. And I’m no great expert on Mary Shelley herself, but I only recently read Frankenstein and in the introduction they talked about the origin of Frankenstein and that was rather fresh on my mind when I saw this film. But even if I hadn’t just read about it – the origin story of Frankenstein is rather well known – Geneva and the contest etc. So it struck me as supremely weird that this was one of the points where the film deviated from fact: In the film version, Mary doesn’t write the novel in Geneva. Instead she basically races back home from Geneva to write it all in London (and basically in one go, to complete the usual cinematic depiction of the artistic work process).

This is just a minor thing in the grand scheme of things, but it is such an unnecessary change that it becomes emblematic for a film that keeps misjudging itself, its characters and the audience. It left me impatient, wishing that it would just get to the point (maybe because the film’s marketing is so focused on Frankenstein or maybe because the dialogues were often too stilted, drawing on Shelley’s poetry, for example).

Percy (Douglas Booth) hugging Mary (Elle Fanning from behind.

The cast was generally good, though probably none of them gave their best performances. But Tom Sturridge’s Byron didn’t work for me. He never managed to move past Byron’s theatrics to the person that was behind it.

I did appreciate the openly feminist take on Mary Shelley’s life and the way she and the women around her are often disregarded and mistreated by the men around her. But even that perspective didn’t really work in the end and felt as lackluster as the film overall.

Mary (Elle Fanning) sitting next to her step-sister Claire (Bel Powley).

Summarizing: disappointing.

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