Film Review: Mary Shelley

The lady author of 'Frankenstein' comes into her own.
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A period piece for the #MeToo movement, Haifaa Al-Mansour’s (Wajda) Mary Shelley is a glossy, righteous look at the early years of the 19th-century author of Frankenstein. Well structured, well directed and starring a very good Elle Fanning, the film nonetheless suffers from that tendency to use characters more as vehicles for ideas than for exploring human character.

When we first meet Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Fanning), she is a dreamy teenager of 16 taken to scribbling ghost stories in the local cemetery. She is in perpetual conflict with her stepmother (Joanne Froggart, in a small, nasty role at entertaining odds with her good-girl portrayal of Anna on “Downton Abbey”). When Mary’s father, the writer William Godwin (Stephen Dillane, otherwise known to “Game of Thrones” fans as Stannis Baratheon), sends her to Scotland in an effort to temporarily subdue the domestic turbulence, Mary enjoys a fateful encounter: She meets the handsome poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). Soon Mary must return to London, but her new love interest, equally smitten, follows quickly on her heels. Shelley begins to study under the literary tutelage of Mary’s father, who is in desperate need of the money Shelley can offer for the privilege.

Stirred by romantic, progressive ideals concerning free love, Mary and Shelley—who is married and the father of a little girl—run away together. They’re joined by Mary’s half-sister, Claire (The Diary of a Teenage Girl’s Bel Powley), who will not be left behind. The three bohemians set up house in a narrow, dingy flat, but their joy is short-lived. Shelley’s wealthy father cuts him off as punishment for the scandal, Mary and Shelley suffer a personal tragedy (though it’s Mary who feels it the more keenly), and Mary must come to terms with the consequences of Shelley’s callous insistence on adhering to their “Love whomever you please” philosophy.

It isn’t until the end of the film that we finally arrive at that moment for which we have all been waiting: the trip to the house of the gleefully misogynistic Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) that results in the challenge, among the bored party of literati, to see who can write the most chilling ghost story. As the film makes very—even insistently—clear, Mary draws on all the tragedy that has surrounded her, from the death of her feminist mother shortly after her birth, to the abandonment of pregnant Claire by the libertine Byron, to her own disillusionment with Shelley, and creates her masterpiece: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

We haven’t quite finished yet, however, as one old, white male publisher after another rejects the manuscript, on the grounds that the material is not suitable for a young lady author, and, as such, would not appeal to their readership. Only after Shelley agrees to write the foreword to the book, which is then published anonymously—leading to the popular misconception that he is its author—is Frankenstein made available to the public. Mary is indignant, but at the end of Mary Shelley, everything works out in love and literature alike.

Mary Shelleywas filmed from a spec script authored by first-time feature writer Emma Jensen (with additional writing by the director). It covers a lot of ground over its 121 minutes, but it is a testament to both writers that the story never drags, rather continuing to move forward at a nice clip with brief, punchy scenes. Al-Mansour goes all-in when Mary finally gets to writing Frankenstein, pushing the camera tight on Fanning’s face as Byron suggests they write their ghost stories, and depicting the writing process itself with animated sequences of black ink falling upon, and staining in spidery tendrils, pages covered in writing as Mary quotes lines from her book in voiceover. Otherwise, Al-Mansour’s direction is relatively unobtrusive and fleet. The costumes are also as lovely as one could hope of a film set in the 19th century.

In all, Mary Shelley is sleek and 2018 inoffensive—and something of a missed opportunity. Mary is feisty, she is intelligent, she is talented…and it seems as if she is almost always in the right. Even when she runs away with Shelley, she acts only in the name of love, and although she suffers a good deal of heartache because of it, the film never suggests her life might have been happier if she had stayed the socially acceptable course. More importantly, Mary herself declares at the end: “I regret nothing.” A rousing sentiment this is, but a hero who wrestles with herself, and who therefore makes us feel for her, in addition to simply admiring her, Mary is not. We may pity her for the tragedies she suffers, but when the time calls for it, she rallies beautifully. Her disillusionment, too, with Shelley only gives way to indignation and not self-reflection. All of this is to say that of our heroine’s heart in conflict with itself, as well as with the world and people around her, there is very little. It is true that Mary frets over her ability to achieve writerly greatness, but this is a minor note in a character that is otherwise held aloft for our admiration. It seems she is always justified, which is not always so very interesting.

A notable moment occurs at Lord Byron’s house just before the poet issues his ghost-story challenge. Mary stares at a painting by an artist who was once her mother’s lover. She tells Lord Byron that her mother, the author of The Vindication of the Rights of Woman, tried to poison herself when this painter left her. She muses over the “contradictions” of a woman who could speak so fiercely about female independence and yet still be so “vulnerable” to a man’s love. I wanted to jump from my seat when I heard this, because that is precisely what Mary herself is missing: human “contradictions.”

Otherwise, what we have is an admirable woman who seems to stand at a distance from us. Mary Shelley is a movie of its time, but not for all times.

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