Director: Haifaa al-Mansour
Starring: Elle Fanning, Maisie Williams, Douglas Booth, Joanne Froggatt, Tom Sturridge, Bel Powley
Words – Carly Stevenson
Not unlike the sorry creature of Mary Shelley’s visionary novel, director Haifaa al-Mansour’s biopic is a flawed creation that was conceived with good intentions: Elle Fanning gives a sincere performance as the eponymous author, who, stifled by domesticity and haunted by the absence of her illustrious mother (Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), turns to popular Gothic novels for comfort before eventually writing her own.
Early on in the film, Mary is seen reading Eliza Parson’s The Castle of Wolfenbach – an influential early work in the Gothic genre that predates both Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis. This small detail demonstrates al-Mansour’s depth of research and a commendable attempt to contextualise Mary Shelley’s writing within a literary tradition.
Showing women writers reading other women writers – particularly writers like Parsons, whose work was dismissed on account of its perceived vulgarity – is a powerful image that sends a positive message about the significance of popular art.
The treatment of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron is decidedly less positive. The former is portrayed as a selfish, hypocritical reprobate whose radical views and literary achievements, including his collaborative involvement in Mary’s writing (and vice versa), are downplayed to fit the ‘bad husband’ narrative. Likewise, Byron is shown to be a two-dimensional, misogynistic fop whose only interests are wine and women. There are perhaps some shades of truth to these unsympathetic portraits and some embellishment is to be expected, however, a nuanced approach would have been far more interesting.
Complex lives deserve complex characterisation, yet the filmmakers seem more interested in perpetuating myths than challenging them.
The characterisation of Mary is, thankfully, more considered. She is autonomous, passionate and fiercely bright – all the qualities we would expect a proto-feminist author to possess. Unfortunately, this portrayal is somewhat undercut by the way that the film insists on interpreting Frankenstein as a response to grief.
This assumes that the work of fiction is the product of the author’s unrestrained emotion, rather than a self-aware and deliberate act of creation that engaged with some of the most important scientific and philosophical debates of the century.
Mary Shelley disappoints because it takes the unconventional lives of Mary Shelley and her circle and frames them within a conventional romance story.
Although the cinematography is elegant, the cast are capable and the subject is inherently fascinating, al-Mansour’s biopic assembles all the right parts, but fails to bring them fully to life.