Mary Shelley is a biographical period piece about author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, arguably the first true science fiction story. Daughter of a novelist/polictical philosopher and writer/feminist, Mary Shelley (Elle Fanning) was born into a fascinating world of political rebellion whose life was forever shaped by the loss of her mother mere weeks after her birth. She was also married to Percy B. Shelley (Douglas Booth) one of England’s most influencial Romantic Poets. Unfortunately, the film restricts itself and Mary Shelley by focusing on her connections with men, particularly Percy Shelley.
Written by Australian Emma Jensen and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour – the first female Saudi filmmaker, most famous for her film Wadjda – Mary Shelley was created mainly by women. It’s disappointing when a movie helmed by so many women about a feminist icon becomes completely about the male characters. In fact, I would be very interested to see how the word count stacks up as I’m sure most of the dialogue was spoken by men.
It seems to be an odd choice when I was far more invested in Mary’s relationships with other women and we see some of this in the beginning with her yearning for her mother, her toxic relationship with her stepmother (Joanne Froggatt) and her friendship with Isabel Baxter (Maisie Williams). Only her half-sister (Bel Powely) really remains in the movie after the introduction of Percy Shelley though and her mother is only brought up in regards to the scandals associated with her.
It is also at the introduction of Percy Shelley that all development of Mary’s character stops. Percy tells us that Mary has an interest in science but this is news to the audience and Lord Byron points out that she is more intelligent than him but we see no indication of this. When Mary is finally introduced to galvanism (the process of contracting muscle using electricity) which inspires the science in Frankenstein, the moment is weak as we have not seen her fascination with science develop.
Even near the end when Percy asks if she would like to read because she always loved to, it surprised me because it had been so long since she had done so. For some reason the film also leaves out some of the most interesting and gothic details of Mary’s life in favour of telling the story of a toxic relationship. At Mary’s ultimate triumph in the movie it is made about Percy and then there is still the choice to leave out the fact that Mary Shelley famously carried around her husband’s calcified heart wrapped in his poems for years.
The film is filled with strange shots especially when Mary is sent to Scotland and there are many nature shots which, though being beautiful are gratuitous as they do not seem to connect with the story and are abandoned as quickly as they begin. At times I can see flashes of themes but they never last long and it seems to just keep falling back into the romantic period drama genre and not well. The casting for the most part is adequate but Elle Fanning is an odd choice who seems to perhaps fit the young Mary Shelley that Jensen has written but struggles as she ages and when she has her strong feminist speeches there isn’t much depth or strength behind them. Overall, the film is at best an average period film but a very disappointing biographical film of the queen of goth.