'Battle of the Sexes' and 'Mary Shelley' portray feminists from two centuries


Whether by design or coincidence, 2017 seems to be The Year of the Woman at the Toronto International Film Festival. Of the 19 films I saw, nearly half centered on females. I’ve already reported on Molly’s Game, A Fantastic Woman, Gaga: Five Foot Two and I, Tonya. You can add to that list two films about groundbreaking women that seem to speak to each other over the span of two centuries.

Opening on Sept. 22 from Fox Searchlight is Battle of the Sexes, an entertaining account of the sensational 1973 match between reigning women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King and 55-year-old former champ Bobby Riggs, a colorful showman who staged the event to prove that women simply were no equal to their male counterparts in the sport. King had formed her own women’s tennis league in protest of the vast pay gap between the sexes in tennis, despite the fact that the women’s contests were just as well-attended. For Riggs, the match was a publicity stunt to benefit his own pocketbook; for King, it was a chance to make a powerful statement about the capabilities of her sex.

Alongside these high stakes for King, the film also deals with a personal life-changing event: Happily married to a supportive and handsome husband, she discovers her attraction to women through a chance encounter with a free-spirited hairdresser. The pressure on King is intense—not just from this very high-profile media event, but the fear of people discovering her secret affair and the impact that would have on her career.

With a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire) and direction by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), Battle of the Sexes is enlivened by the casting of two appealing actors, Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs. Her red hair dyed black and sporting King’s signature glasses, Stone mixes her down-to-earth charm with strength and vulnerability as this crusader for women’s equality. And Carell’s goofy affability makes Riggs more likeable than this writer’s memory of the showboating provocateur. The period details are a blast from the past, even if the feminist battles the movie portrays are raging once again in 2017.

Mary Shelley takes us back to the early 1800s and the life of the teenage author who conceived the enduring horror classic Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus. This is the second feature from Haifaa Al-Monsour, the first female Saudi filmmaker, whose debut feature, Wadjda, earned acclaim for its story of a young girl determined to own a bicycle forbidden to females by her culture. Her lavish new English-language, England-set period piece is quite the step up, but it retains the same feminist stance.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning) is the daughter of political philosopher and bookseller William Godwin and the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died soon after giving birth to the girl. Young Mary is a voracious reader and budding writer of Gothic horror stories, which her bitter stepmother (Joanne Froggat, far from the sweet servant she played on “Downton Abbey”) sternly disapproves of. Mary’s life changes dramatically when she meets and falls for handsome poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth). Against both her parents’ wishes, she leaves home with Percy, accompanied by her also-restless stepsister, Claire (Bel Powley). The three set up house, but Percy is anything but the man of Mary’s dreams: He already has a child by another woman from whom he’s estranged, he doesn’t believe in monogamy, and he’s constantly fleeing his creditors. Later in the film we meet the poet Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge, playing him like a dissolute ’70s rock star), who takes up with Claire. Celebrated poets they may be, but Shelley and Byron come across here as narcissistic jerks, with Shelley especially underestimating his young paramour.

The movie includes the famous rainy night during which Byron challenged his guests to write a ghost story and Frankenstein was born (and also the seminal The Vampyre by fellow guest Dr. John Polidori). That same evening was dramatized in Ken Russell’s Gothic, and one longs for some of Russell’s wildness to seep into this generally tame portrayal.

The movie is strongest in its final half-hour, as Mary seeks to get her masterpiece published and must settle for it being presented as an anonymous tome, with an introduction by none other than Percy, whom everyone assumes to be the author. But the truth eventually came out, and the second edition was published identifying Mary by name.

Mary Shelley’s style is too discreet and conventional for its rule-breaking central characters, but former child star Elle Fanning proves herself a poised, intelligent and compelling actress fully capable of carrying a feature film. And it’s about time the story of Mary Shelley, pioneering author, were told on the big screen.