Mary Shelley (UK / Luxembourg / USA / 12A / 121 mins)
In short: Electrifying
Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. Starring Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Stephen Dillane, Ben Hardy, Maisie Williams.
The Plot: Mary (Elle Fanning) is the teenage daughter of novelist William Godwin (Stephen Dillane) and her late mother Mary Wollstonecraft, a proto-feminist whose works Mary now reads as the only surviving memory. Mary is a forthright young woman, prone to disobeying her strict-minded father. When she meets the dashing romantic poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), she finds herself swept away by his lifestyle. They elope and bring along Mary’s stepsister Claire (Bel Powley), who subsequently takes a fancy to debauched rake Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge). Lord Byron invites the group, including physician Dr John Polidori (Ben Hardy), to join him in Geneva where he challenges them to create a ghost story. This sets Mary’s mind working, to create a landmark novel that will chill the blood of generations to come…
The Verdict: Now exactly two centuries old, Mary Shelley’s debut novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus is one of the great works of not only gothic literature but English literature itself. That it came from the mind of an 18-year-old woman is perhaps even more remarkable, considering the time period that she lived in. Many screen adaptations have often done a disservice to the novel, focusing more on the horror elements and less on its deep philosophical, theological and scientific roots (though Kenneth Branagh made a reasonably good stab at it). How the novel was electrified into creation is almost as famous as the novel itself. Those fateful events in Geneva have been the subject of films before, like Ken Russell’s 1986 film Gothic. Now, the new film Mary Shelley attempts a fresh take on an origin story – and mostly succeeds.
Working from a script by Emma Jensen, director Haifaa Al-Mansour (Saudi Arabia’s first female director) recounts Mary’s early life as she grew up in an intellectually stimulating household. When her father takes in Percy Shelley as a student, her life changes dramatically. While Mary is younger, curious and idealistic, Percy has rather different views on what love actually means – more in tone with Lord Byron. That core relationship between Mary and Percy isn’t the beating heart of the film though. Al-Mansour is more interested in how their passionate relationship informs Mary’s worldview, as she experiences confusion, loss and abandonment. Of course, these tragic life experiences later feed into the writing of Frankenstein.
Al-Mansour does a good job here of suggesting how Mary’s mind whirs into action, drawing from her own deep well of imaginative thoughts to form a story ‘to awaken thrilling horror… and quicken the beatings of the heart’. You can see Al-Mansour’s train-of-thought, but it does come across as a little light on substance. It’s more a collection of circumstances culled from a Wikipedia page to birth Frankenstein, rather than a more in-depth attempt to understand what actually made Mary write such a blood-curdling novel. There is an intriguing scene involving a demonstration of re-animation through electricity, but Al-Mansour squanders the opportunity to understand what it actually represents in Mary’s mind.
However, there’s still much to admire about this consistently interesting film about the creative process. It’s handsomely mounted, making good use of its locations in Ireland and Luxembourg. There’s a fine cast that nail their characters with a slightly modern touch, to suggest that people haven’t changed all that much in two centuries. Fanning is ideal casting as Mary, as wide-eyed and innocent as she is worldly and vexed by human nature. There was far more to Mary Shelley than meets the eye and Fanning digs deep to internalise those thoughts. It’s a carefully considered performance – far more effective than her recent turn in the unfortunate How To Talk To Girls At Parties. While it has some flaws, Mary Shelley thankfully avoids the Sunday evening costume drama trap to become an electrifying and enlightening take on a unique talent. Worth seeking out.