In 2012, director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s first film, ‘Wadjda’, became not only the first feature film from a female Saudi director, but also the first feature to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. For her second film and English language debut, ‘Mary Shelley’, Al-Mansour has decided to tell the true story of the 18-year-old woman who wrote one of the world’s most well-known horror novels: ‘Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus’. Like ‘Wadjda’, both films deal with the determination of a young female protagonist to accomplish an important goal that will confirm her independence.
It’s London in the early 1800s. We first meet 16-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning, ‘The Neon Demon’, ‘The Beguiled’) as she dawdles by her long-dead mother’s gravesite which is, naturally, weird and superbly Gothic. Mary aspires to become an author like her father, William Godwin (Stephen Dillane, ‘Game of Thrones’) and is adored by her siblings (including Bel Powley as her stepsister Claire). However, she clashes constantly with her stepmother Mary Jane (Joanne Froggatt), and as a temporary fix she is sent away to Scotland to stay with some family friends.
'MARY SHELLEY' TRAILER
Quickly befriending her new hosts’ daughter Isabel (a so-so Maisie Williams, ‘Game of Thrones’ again), she meets Shelley (Douglas Booth, ‘The Limehouse Golem’, ‘Loving Vincent’) and is instantly intrigued by his romantic, nonconformist views on life and love. Eventually, Mary returns home, but Shelley follows soon thereafter, and the two quickly fall in love - even though he’s already married with a child on the way. Hot-and-heavy graveyard make out sessions ensue.
Fully engaged with the material, and wielding a good accent, Elle Fanning is the MVP of this film. That’s not really saying much, as she’s been the best thing in most of her films, whether they have been good (‘The Beguiled’) or absolutely awful (‘Live By Night’).
As a tale of female empowerment, there’s a lot to chew on: not only does Mary struggle to get her novel published with proper credit but her mother, who died shortly after giving birth to her, was a writer whose non-monogamous lifestyle and proto-feminist treatise 'Vindication on the Rights of Woman' created no small stir in literary circles. The film is a scathing indictment on the self-involvement of its male Romantics, who talk a good talk about breaking free of rigid gender conventions right until the moment it ceases to suit their needs.
Like ‘Wadjda’, both films deal with the determination of a young female protagonist to accomplish an important goal that will confirm her independence.
‘Mary Shelley’ also looks great - candlelit rooms, the flicker of oil lamps, the soggy landscapes of Scotland and all the extremes of luxury and squalor are there to draw the viewer into the past, creating a believable Gothic-tinged setting that never lapses into Merchant Ivory overkill.
But too often the film falls into the familiar biopic trap of paint-by-numbers posturing, merely going through the motions - it’s a tumultuous love story but there isn’t that much passion between Fanning and Booth, and an account of artistic awakening that arrives at its subject (Mary’s struggle to publish her novel) way too late. The film doesn’t dig deep into the characterisation. The dialogue clunks. Also, there is an absolute stinker of a performance from Tom Sturridge as a rock star (complete with eyeliner) version of poet Lord Byron, who plays a large role in Mary’s story.
The writing of 'Frankenstein' already inspired a spate of mediocre films in the 1980s, including Ken Russell’s ‘Gothic’ and Ivan Passers’s ‘Haunted Summer’. ‘Mary Shelley’ is a serviceable biopic that features a strong turn from Fanning and decent performances elsewhere but, given the unusual facts of the author’s life, her enduring legacy, and the way her struggle for artistic equality still resonates in 2017, she deserves more than a linear, Wikipedia-style trawl through her life.