By Joie Atejira, October 3 2017 —
Almost 200 years after Frankenstein was published, Haifaa al-Mansour presents Mary Shelley, a biopic about the renowned author’s teenage years leading up to the completion of her most famous novel. The film screened at the Calgary International Film Festival.
Mary Shelley prioritizes the love affair of young Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin to the affluent poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. It’s a gothic, young-adult romance featuring constant rendezvous at her mother’s grave and poetic flirtations that only the two lovers can comprehend. The film centres on their forbidden love set against harsh traditions and the restrained society of the 18th century.
Alongside the young-adult romance is a coming-of-age story. Mary Shelley was only a teenager when catapulted into motherhood, but she matured quickly as a result of her hasty elopement to Percy Shelley. Wild adventures and tragedies with Percy Shelley and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, guide us towards the titular character’s growth into adulthood.
With all this going on — plus the attempts by the Shelleys and their writer friends to succeed the Romantic era — Mary Shelley comes across as an awkwardly paced film. The biopic’s thesis is lost within the many moments of Mary Shelley’s life as the film desperately attempts to cover them all.
The film’s strength lies in Mary Shelley’s experiences as a woman in the 18th century. The film could have focused on more of Mary Shelley and Clairmont’s relationships. Their solid sisterhood sits covertly at the core of the film, further strengthened against the predatory shackles of the men in their lives. Furthermore, Mary Shelley frames the toxic male relationships as the basis of Mary’s first novel.
Lead actress Elle Fanning stuns as the idealistic, beautiful and intellectual Mary Shelley. Douglas Booth exudes Percy Shelley’s attractive but dubious nature and Bel Powley plays Clairmont excellently, appearing overlooked and needy without stealing the spotlight from Fanning.
Mary Shelley is a decent biopic. It highlights the many significant events in her life, but fails to convey a unifying theme. The film does an impressive job of showcasing female solidarity through the sisters’ strong bond and the movie could have been better if it remained focused on this matter. Unfortunately, unlike Mary Shelley or Frankenstein, this film will not stand the test of time.