Ever since James Whale put Elsa Lanchester in the most extravagant of gowns for Bride of Frankenstein’s prologue, Hollywood has flirted with the true creationist myth of cinema’s most famous monster. Inspired by a bet during a literal stormy night, and at the proverbial crossroads between the Enlightenment era and Gothic revival, a teenage girl named Mary Shelley wrote one of English literature’s finest works and gave birth to more than an iconic creature; she conceived our very understanding of science fiction.
Frankly, one senses that if Whale had infinite resources, he’d just as soon have made a movie about Mary, the young woman whose nightmare still electrifies modern dreams. Yet studios have long balked at the stranger-than-fiction life of Mary Wolstoncraft Shelley (née Godwin), and judging by Haifaa Al-Mansour’s overdue biopic on the literary icon, it’s been perhaps because of the same reason Miss Godwin was so easily dismissed by publishers in her day: Who wants to hear this kind of tale from a woman?
Such is the emphasis of Mary Shelley, a welcome biographical film on Frankenstein’s author—here played with spirited fire by Elle Fanning—that takes a very, very conventional path to track a most unconventional life. As a film, Mary Shelley is a traditional period piece about an ill-fated romance between a naïve but burgeoning intellect in 16-year-old Mary and the rather crass way it is manipulated and used by promising poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), a man already five years her senior, yet long on the road in his career of scandal-facilitator. (He’s already left his wife and child when they meet.) Yet even if the narrative beats follow a too familiar drum, the melody enacted by Mary’s thoughts remain as unique as ever.
The film itself lets audiences know exactly what kind of biopic it is when it opens on precocious Mary scribbling away in her journal of verse while sitting atop the grave of her mother Mary Wollstencraft. The elder Mary was a feminist and thinker for her age in the previous century, a feat which her namesake feels constantly measured against, as her mother died shortly after our heroine’s birth. So Fanning’s Mary toils away in her father’s under-lit London bookshop, listening to William Godwin’s (Stephen Dillane) philosophies about love and life while pining to live them.
The chance comes when she meets Percy at a party. Portrayed as something of an early 19th century pop star on the rise, Booth’s Percy is all gentle smiles and idol-ready looks. He is also wise not to bring up the whole wife thing. Soon enough he is apprenticing for Mary’s father, and meeting with her at their real-life secret rendezvous location: her mother’s grave. Yet stolen trysts among the dead turn into sordid scandals for the living, as Mary and her step-sister Claire (Bel Powley) run off with the writer to live a bohemian life that sounds much more romantic than its reality.
Thus child birth and justifiable suspicions about Percy’s “free love” create a heightened setting, and then the introduction of Lord Byron (Tom Sutrridge by way of David Bowie) provides the lighting. Eventually, Sturridge’s perennially bored rock star poet invites Claire (a mistress he treats like a groupie), Percy, and Mary to his summer house in Geneva. Only then do ghost stories finally abound.
Mary Shelley is a handsomely mounted production that ever looks so much like a Goth kid’s daydream of the teenage writer. Cast in a perpetual gray and sunless world that would be as fitting for a Hammer Horror movie as it would be about the Early Romantic transcendentalists of its day, the film is all candlelight and stolen glances, which makes for a fine, if often glossy effect. The script by Emma Jensen (with some re-working by Al-Mansour) is more problematic, however.
In a bid for a modern feminist critique of Percy Shelley and his undeniably abhorrent selfishness, the film leans too much on speechifying and Mary’s frequent decrees of judgement on all other parties who occupy this story. These concessions to our current sensibility can sometimes be empowering, especially when she stares down her first of many condescending publishers, yet it also robs the story of living inside the heads of these contemporary minds that, however flawed, provided thoughts that centuries later are still parsed over. In addition to casting Percy as a callow and unsympathetic libertine (which he probably was), it reduces the sometimes sordid and questionable choices of Mary, or for that matter Claire, into being fairly black-and-white.
Be that as it may, the film still mostly comes together by simply tracing the sheer nature of Mary’s early life as a young woman who would defy her free-thinking (but ultimately old-fashioned) father, and who threw herself into the heart of the Early Romantic movement while surpassing all of the lauded male scribes of her day. The role also plays to young Fanning’s strengths, who has long inhabited girls who seem beyond their years. Here she is able to marry that inner innocence of being a teenager with the life experiences that would seem shocking for an 18-year-old to endure, such as childbirth, child death, and all manner of infidelities and betrayals. Behind all of it though are Fanning’s watchful and ever thoughtful eyes and the inner-life they project.
The actual contest that inspired Frankenstein and the subsequent writing of her masterpiece also quickens the film for a stirring third act, as Mary’s fall into the moral degradation of Byron’s summer home teases the more decadent movie that is hidden away in the film’s fairly demure presentation. Sturridge takes a particularly broad turn as Byron, a figure who was so large in his own life that one cannot fault the actor for crossing a line that never existed.
At its best, the film reminds audiences that these lauded poets and novelists lived lives not made of porcelain and silk, but of mud, hardship, and very bad decisions. Rather than literary gods, they’re rich young things with often wicked thoughts. But those wicked thoughts are still so enticing that they can turn an adequate biopic into a worthwhile one.
Mary Shelley premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 28 and opens theatrically on May 25.