Creative spirit

Haifaa Al-Mansour takes a feminist perspective on Mary Shelley

by Andrew Robertson

Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley
Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley

Eye For Film saw Mary Shelley at 2018's Edinburgh Film festival, at a well attended screening on a hot summer evening. The audience were welcomed into the air-conditioned cool by festival Artistic Director Mark Adams. As he put it, "it's too hot outside", and that as far as spending time anywhere other than in the cinema was concerned, we should "not even bother". As you'll hopefully see from the volume of our EIFF coverage, we didn't...

The screening was introduced by director Haifaa Al-Mansour, who described it as "an amazing story". She explained that even though she had been a literary major at college she didn't know more about Mary Shelley and the writing of Frankenstein. Coming from Saudi Arabia she "knew the struggle to have passion heard", a difficulty that "transcend[s] race", a project that she herself was "so passionate about", one that had the opportunity to "celebrate womanhood".

Haifaa Al-Mansour
Haifaa Al-Mansour Photo: Haylie Niemann

Audiences were given a free copy of the tie-in Penguin Originals publication of Frankenstein, which has a foreword by Al-Mansour and came with a promotional bookmark too. There are a few other filmic tie ins in the series, including works by SE Hinton and at least one after The War Of The Worlds.

After the film, in Q&A, Haifaa explained that she had come to the project at a relatively early stage. In her previous filmmaking she had usually served as writer/director; it was a novelty to come to it "just as a director". There was discussion about her sadness at not knowing more about Mary Shelley, that for all Frankenstein's success she has often been forgotten as the author, and that there's not much about her within popular culture. She had been excited by the opportunity to make a "period English drama", making use of her own experience about "how much it hurts [to be] dismissed creatively."

She explained that she had contributed additional writing, focusing particularly on the third act and the publication of Frankenstein, and that she had enjoyed working with writer Emma Jensen.

Talking about behind the scenes, she had been asked about the filming of the retreat to Geneva and how she was going to control that set - she explained that the energy was such on the set that the cast were able to "feed on each other", that it was almost just an act of documentary to catch them interacting. She also advised that it was best to "work with them, not party with them". A line from the film - "look around you, look at the mess you've made" - could well describe the aftermath of that Geneva set: a young cast in luxurious surroundings, without the particular debt/wealth dichotomy most recently explored in The Heiresses, but if anyone knew how much of the wine on screen was real they weren't talking.

She described Dublin as a "playground for period shooting". It does seem to have been a positive experience behind the scenes, and while shooting a period film was "more complicated" she contrasted it to the sometimes "scary" process of filming in Saudi Arabia. She talked about efforts to be "accurate to the period," but explained that her female cast had asked not to wear corsets, one of a series of breaks that weren't quite anachronisms but "liberties not coming out of the period". Given the extent to which that set played with convention, dressing for comfort and not compression does not seem too much of a stress.

Mary Shelley, "surrounded by death"
Mary Shelley, "surrounded by death"

She talked about how Elle Fanning had been cast because of her capability for subtlety - something evident in her performance in Mary Shelley. She talked about the film's focus on Shelley, that though she was "surrounded by death" the hope was for a film as a "success story, not a sad story". Her discussion of the feminist reading of Frankenstein is reflected in her foreword to the Penguin Originals edition, with its green-tinted page edges and bright red cover.

That same contrast was one of the things she seems to have sought in her cast. Apparently Elle had always been in mind for the role but when seeking their Percy they had "auditioned every actor in that age range". One of the difficulties was finding someone to play a man, a "character that you didn't just want people to reject." She described Douglas Booth as being possessed of "some innocence," a "boyish recklessness," and explained that he had come to set with "a perfume he had designed for the character". That revelation was met with humour by the audience, a fitting excess of Bohemian Romanticism indeed. She credited his performance as "exactly what we wanted", that it made Percy someone that audiences would "not just reject but embrace". She also talked about working with veteran actor Stephen Dillane, and contrasted his methods with those of the younger casts, and how "as [she] grows as a director understanding how actors come with their own set of tools" to work with, how they were able to "elevate the scenes... [to] bring so much craft." One of the strengths of the film is the quality of its cast, and it's always nice to see directors talking about mutual development. It's certainly cause to be optimistic about Mansour's next film, romcom and novel adaptation Nappily Ever After for Netflix.

Mary Shelley is now available online, streaming via Curzon and in cinemas.

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