A Nightmare Wakes

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

A Nightmare Wakes
"Though it lacks the polish of some of its predecessors, A Nightmare Wakes is a potent piece of work."

Few nights in history have received as much attention from filmmakers as that storm-swept eve in June 1816 when, at his house on the shores of Lake Geneva, Lord Byron challenged his friends to write ghost stories. Two famous tales came out of it: the lovesick Dr Polidori's thinly disguised The Vampyre and Mary Shelley's revolutionary Frankenstein. Mary would go on to struggle for many years to get the latter recognised as her work and to receive the attention she was due, because she was a woman. Most films on the subject have continued to let her down, more interested in the sexual scandals surrounding her than in her ideas. Nora Unkel's drama tries to do things differently. Though it lacks the polish of some of its predecessors, A Nightmare Wakes is a potent piece of work.

Rather than trying to cram everything into a single night, as others have, Unkel follows Mary over the five months to the novel's completion. She takes a few liberties with the order of events, omitting almost all reference to Mary's first child, William, and moving forward the suicide of her partner Percy's first wife, Harriet. This enables her to paint a more wide-ranging portrait of the couple's relationship and to explore Mary's feelings about death which, in light of her later life, had something of the quality of premonition. In its way this removes the most supernatural-seeming element of the tale. Unkel replaces that with visions of characters from the developing book, whose haunting presence signals her heroine's increasing obsession and unwillingness to let material reality dictate the order of her life.

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Even at this early stage in Mary's life, material concerns are weighing heavily upon her. Far from the sexually excitable teenager portrayed in many versions of the tale, she's a woman forced to take responsibility for the wayward, fiscally irresponsible Percy, worried that they won't make enough money to feed the child she's carrying, trying to persuade him to marry her not because she disagrees with his philosophical objections but because otherwise she risks being left destitute if one of his many affairs becomes serious. As he grows closer to her sister Claire, she finds herself cast in the role of the difficult one, a burden on the family. Their assertions that she is going mad seem almost superfluous. She's aware that she's being gaslighted, but she's also experiencing an interior journey beyond their ability to imagine.

With much of the film taking place inside Mary's head, Unkel depends on - and gets - a muscular performance from lead Alix Wilton Regan. Conjuring an inner darkness which stands in contrast to the affected horror of the stories under discussion in Byron's house, she gives us a Mary who seems out of sync with her companions, as if she were intrinsically a part of the modern world, a visitor from the future which her books helped to create. Rather than coming across as a victim bound to Viktor Frankenstein by their mutual struggle to create in the way that comes naturally to most women, she is shown rebelling against the constraints of traditional womanhood, unable to conform to the popular idea of a mother but capable of gestating and ultimately birthing a groundbreaking work of literature.

Films exploring the proximity of artistic creation to madness are nothing new, but observing a woman in this way carries additional weight. in Mary's time, after all, any woman focused on intellectual endeavour was liable to be considered disturbed. Unkel is well aware of the dangerousness of her ambition and contrasts it tellingly with her male companions' attempts at literary rebellion. In one scene, Byron appears to try and reconcile her to a more orderly way of life and we are abruptly reminded of the very conventional upper class values which gave him the freedom to pose as mad, bad and dangerous to know. Nobody around Mary seems safe, her ideas provoking jealousy and threatening to destabilise their reality.

The heavy great skies photographed by Oren Soffer conjure up the lingering dust of the Mount Tambora explosion, the literal darkness hanging over that summer. The waters of the lake mirror those where Harriet drowned. This is a world swollen with guilt and the weight of consequence. It's a portrait of gestation at its ugliest and most vital, of Mary unbound.

Reviewed on: 31 Jan 2021
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A Nightmare Wakes packshot
Out by Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley conceives the idea for Frankenstein and gradually develops her novel, amid personal turmoil and increasingly disturbing visions.

Director: Nora Unkel

Writer: Nora Unkel

Starring: Alix Wilton Regan, Giullian Yao Gioiello, Philippe Bowgen, Lee Garrett, Claire Glassford

Year: 2020

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US

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