The life of author Mary Shelley is more than worthy of cinematic exploration for a variety of reasons, but unfortunately this glossy new bio-pic from director Haifaa Al-Mansour reduces her life and work down to the world’s most opulent book report on ‘Frankenstein’. It’s still a rather well made and acted affair, just something that feels a little too slight given the limited focus of the material.
We first meet Elle Fanning’s version of Mary Shelley as a teenager in London. She reads books in her father’s shop, tells her siblings ghost stories, and writes poetry in a cemetery. (Foreshadowing alert!) She then meets the poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth) and falls madly in love, despite the fact that he already has a wife and child. Mary and her stepsister Claire (Bel Powley) run off with Shelley to live a life of “unconventional love.” Initially, that means rejecting societal norms, boozing, and writing. Eventually, it leads to infidelity, poverty, and fatally irresponsible parenting from Percy that leaves young Mary in a state of neglected depression. It’s in that fragile place that the Shelley trio head off to the isolated estate of Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) and are challenged to write horror stories. Mary comes up with a literary icon that will reverberate for centuries.
Obviously there’s some value in reframing Mary Shelley’s early days as a feminist parable of hedonistic neglect that fed into the themes of ‘Frankenstein’. However, Emma Jensen and Haifaa Al-Mansour’s script is just a little too on-the-nose in its assessments, telegraphing everything as loudly as possible and then repeating all their thematic readings of ‘Frankenstein’ yet again once the young author completes her opus. Added to that are the standard bio-pic clichés of seeing inspirations for art in ways that tell the audience, “See, this came from that.” (In this case, a bizarre sideshow reanimating a frog corpse with electricity is used to slap viewers in the face.) ‘Mary Shelley’ is so constructed for the singular purpose of reinterpreting ‘Frankenstein’ as a feminist autobiographical statement that it almost feels more like a thesis paper than a movie.
While its script is a bit too overstated in nearly every way, the film is still well made. Haifaa Al-Mansour’s sense of visual detail and passionate humanism is on beautiful display, especially when the film descends into the darkness of Lord Byron’s mansion and Shelley’s nightmares form into ‘Frankenstein’. The performances are also wonderful, from Elle Fanning’s pained yet passionately strong lead to Douglas Booth’s devilishly self-absorbed Percy, and Tom Sturridge’s hysterically unhinged Byron. Individual scenes and sequences are striking, but ultimately the script is too singularly focused to a specific reading of ‘Frankenstein’ to register as stirring drama. The fact that the rest of the author’s life and work is dismissed as postscript feels like a mistake. There was more to Mary Shelley’s worth than her sense of victimhood and her debut novel. Maybe someday we’ll see that reflected on screen.