Mary Shelley


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Bel Powley as Claire Clairmont, Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley, Douglas Booth Percy Shelley, and Tom Sturridge as Lord Byron in Mary Shelley
"Elle Fanning as Shelley has sadness and fire, a performance that could be classed as electric." | Photo: David Ungaro

Mary Shelley is in some ways doubly a biopic, not just a period piece about a life marked by both controversy and tragedy, but about a work whose creation is fraught with metaphor, a novel whose eponymous character(s) are now part of our lexicon.

There's an early appearance for The Castle of Wolfenbach, one of Northanger Abbey's 'horrid novels', another novel by a women and one of the initial outposts of the Gothic. It's one of many entities, incidents, individuals whose influence can at least be implied (if not inferred) in the creation of Shelley's most famous work, her modern Prometheus. Screened at Edinburgh's 2018 Film Festival, the audience were given (free) copies of a tie-in edition of Frankenstein, and though the film too is the work of women and perhaps more complex than it's likely to be given credit for, the film cannot hope to compete in terms of originality.

Except, of course, that deliberately working to a feminist reading of Frankenstein and it (and his?) creation might be new to many - not everyone is steeped enough in Gothic lore to know whose calcified heart was amongst Mary's possessions, the extent to which feminism and the feminine informed her work. Shelley's literary pedigree is one of the strands of the film, and it's well followed, well worked - the overwhelming sense is one of quality. A quality that's evinced by its emotional effect - Shelley's story is one punctuated by grief, by grieving, and it's balanced to allow a re-reading of the (source?) novel as one of love and loss.

Written by Emma Jensen, with additional writing by director Haifaa Al-Mansour (Wadjda) this is an early feature for Al-Mansour, her first as anything approaching a director for hire. In Q&A at the festival screening* she revealed a lot about the processes of creation behind the film, and much of her and her team's efforts can be seen on the screen.

As with any period piece there's the opportunity for anachronism, and two hundred years after first publication there's plenty of opportunity for reinterpretation. I had a mild concern about what appeared the same coach carrying someone from London to Scotland and doing so door to door, and a nagging doubt about the uniforms of two soldiers seen briefly through the trees. I'll let both go because that kind of regimented thinking doesn't help anyone, and as Al-Mansour discussed the changes made were usually to enhance understanding, clarity. I did notice in dinner scenes involving the family that Mary held her fork differently than others, but while that's probably a consequence of a transatlantic cast there's perhaps a reading about the leaking of recognisable modernity into the 'present'.

Elle Fanning as Shelley has sadness and fire, a performance that could be classed as electric. At the centre of a strong cast, even from her first scenes at her mother's graveside there's an energy, a spark. Bel Powley as her half-sister Claire Clairmont, similarly associated with literary scandal, is good, and Maisie Williams' few scenes as Isabel Baxter add to the bucolic idyll of Mary's brief time in Scotland. That countryside retreat is a marked contrast to the cramped and crowded London of the Godwin household, to the later trip to Geneva. The Godwin/Clairmont family is complicated enough, and the relationships with stepmother Mary Jane Clairemont (Joanne Froggatt) are convincing in their complexity.

Then there are the men. Stephen Dillane's William Godwin, bookseller and publisher and head of a complicated household, later mentor to Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). Booth has history in period pieces with a gothic or fantastic twist, turns in Limehouse Golem and Pride And Prejudice And Zombies behind him. Mary Shelley's often credited with the creation of Science Fiction, and I'd love to know what she'd have made of the Wachowski sisters' Jupiter Ascending, where he was another idle scion of privilege as the youngest Abrasax sibling. Ben Hardy's soap opera pedigree perhaps helped prepare him for the complex nest of social and sexual relationships that plagued his set with scandal, and his John Polidori is sympathetic as another creator whose greatest work was initially misattributed. His muse, Tom Sturridge's Lord Byron, is the louche and the predatory made flesh, a literary parasite in velvet and eyeliner, waiting to disappear into the darkness and distance. Jack Hickey and Hugh O'Connor appear as Thomas Hogg and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. There are complexities abundant in Shelley's eventual biographer and the not yet ancient rimer's presence.

It's Mary's film though - Elle Fanning's performance is central, and though there's despair and dream sequence, idyll and wastrel, quality throughout, there seems something missing. It's not soulless - that'd perhaps be an irony too far - but it may be lacking in the sense of the new. It may be that I wanted more anachronism - shades of Marie Antoinette - that as good as Amelia Warner's music is my filthy goffick ears wanted something by Nick Cave or Siouxsie Sioux, something that sonically captured later echoes of Shelley's struggles, triumphs. Frankenstein is a story so often filmed that while the novel is celebrating its bicentenary we're already past the centennial of its first film adaptation - 1910's Frankenstein.

I was minded of a weird artifact of a certain era of Hollywood. Bram Stoker's Dracula, as directed by Francis Ford Coppola, had a novelisation. That's a book of the screenplay of the film of a book, and while it's a seperate work, the intermediation of SF author Fred Saberhagen and James V Hart (a screenwriter whose CV is dominated by adaptations of books) creating something uniquely distinct and indistinct. In our DVD era novelisations are a weird legacy, but so too is Shelley's. Mary Shelley as a film is much more conventional, and that's perhaps less fitting a tribute to an individual who was not. Certainly, and one must admit sadly, a feminist retelling of the creation of the novel Frankenstein is a novelty, but I was hoping for something with a bit more experimentation.

Genuinely affecting at times, and a compelling portrait of an individual, her grief, and her drive to create, Mary Shelley is fair, fine, but not quite fantastic.

Reviewed on: 06 Jul 2018
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The story of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s whirlwind romance with the tempestuous poet Percy Shelley, which would lead her to write Frankenstein.
Amazon link

Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour

Writer: Haifaa Al-Mansour, Emma Jensen

Starring: Elle Fanning, Bel Powley, Maisie Williams, Stephen Dillane, Douglas Booth, Joanne Froggatt, Tom Sturridge, Ben Hardy, Hugh O'Conor, Ciara Charteris, Jack Hickey, Sarah Lamesch, Donna Marie Sludds, Laurence Foster, Michael Cloke

Year: 2017

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US, UK, Luxembourg


Tribeca 2018
EIFF 2018

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