Mary Shelley is a fascinating period drama about the woman who wrote Frankenstein, that immortal monster that lives on in literature.
Written and directed by Haiaa Al-Mansour, the production is a moody affair in which Elle Fanning, as the writer, gets to sink her claws into a complex character at odds with her time. It’s the real life story, with a few trimmings I should imagine, which should appeal to discerning film-goers.
Raised by her renowned philosopher father turned debt-ridden bookseller, William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), in 18th-century London, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin is a teenage dreamer determined to make her mark on the world.
She meets the dashing and brilliant poet, Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), and begins a torrid, bohemian love affair with him. Their intense relationship forms the narrative’s core, which is marked by both passion and personal tragedy. It transforms Mary and gives her the fuel to pen her Gothic masterpiece.
Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour made her international film debut in 2012 with her critically acclaimed debut feature, Wadjda, the first to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. Mary Shelley is Al-Mansour’s second production and is a brave stab at creating a British period biopic.
It covers two or three years of her young adulthood, when she met young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley up to Frankenstein’s publication. Though impressively shot, the film suffers from an often confused and clunky script. It’s fundamental lack of thematic focus transforms a remarkable story into didactic and disjointed melodrama.
In an age when women were demeaned and not considered to be on an equal footing with men, Shelley was unique. In addition to writing one of the most seminal novels of all time when she was in her teens, she was also a survivor and nonconformist. She continued to produce influential writings even after the untimely deaths of her husband and three of her children.
The cast are well served. Elle Fanning anchors the production and is fully engaging at times, while a smouldering Douglas Booth is commanding as her poet husband. Tom Sturridge excels as the mad, bad and dangerous-to-know poet Lord Byron. While at Lord Byron’s estate in Geneva, Mary and the other guests are challenged to write a ghost story.
Drawing on her feelings of abandonment and disgust with the men in her life, Mary gives birth to Frankenstein’s monster. It’s here, and in her struggle to get the novel published with a proper credit, that the film finds its true centre.
Sadly, this production never provides a satisfactory arc to its many threads. The pieces are there, but unlike Mary Shelley’s most famous creation, without being properly stitched together, it’s hard for it to come to life.