"Mary Shelley" and Her Creature Return to the Screen | Movie Review

The author has the spotlight all to herself in the latest film retelling of the origins of Frankenstein. SLJ reviews the recent biopic about the teen author.

Elle Fanning in Mary Shelley (Photo: IFC Films)

Among the first sounds viewers hear in director Haifaa al-Mansour’s clear-headed and swoon-worthy biopic of the British author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is the scratching of a pencil, as the titular teenage girl sits in a cemetery (a hint of the gothic tone to come) writing in a notebook. Immediately, there is a focus emphasizing the emerging writer's work. The author has the spotlight all to herself, as the key figure, which hasn't always been the case with Shelley in the movies. She and her milieu were filmmaking fodder back in the 1980s, unleashing a mini–art house genre to so-so results, which centered on Shelley and the 1816 summer of love she shared with poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron and her stepsister Claire Clairmont. The clique's one-upmanship gave birth to her groundbreaking first novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, which she completed at age 19. In Ken Russell’s trippy and loosely structured Gothic (1986), Shelley was played by Natasha Richardson. Unfortunately, that film and its ilk placed more emphasis on the subject's "scandalous" love life than on her writing. That was the case in Russell's Gothic, but not in this new portrayal of Shelley. While the other films may have felt overstuffed with characters and subplots, Emma Jensen's script brings clarity. Shelley's relationships becomes secondary to her creation of her most famous work, though there's plenty of bed hopping and bedlam. The romantic intrigue and ensuing scandal come fast and furiously, filmed in a manner that would be more at home on the CW network rather than Showtime or HBO. By far, Shelley is the most well-defined character, as played by Elle Fanning, although the impetuous and flighty Claire (Bel Powley) comes second. The theme of abandonment, whether by Shelley’s mother, who died shortly after her daughter was born, or in the writer’s most famous creation, the solitary Creature, is emphasized more so than the concept of man playing God by raising the dead. The latter concept has been the main takeaway for most movie adaptations: think, Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from 1994. With his tousled, bed head hair, pouty Percy (Douglas Booth) has the slouchy demeanor of a boy band member, but without the volatility, cruelty, or self-absorption in Catherine Reef’s densely layered biography Mary Shelley: The Strange True Tale of Frankenstein’s Creator (Sept., HMH). Lord Byron doesn’t sashay onto the screen until past midway, and then he's given very little to do other than to act flamboyantly. Tom Sturridge plays Byron with a hammy, drunken swagger and is the most quotable of the group, “The great art of life is sensation.” At one point, he utters, “I’m sorry. Have I caused a scene?” (He already knows the answer.) Shelley's father, William Godwin (Stephen Dillane)—a political radical in his day, bookseller, and a children's book publisher, too—is given a sympathetic interpretation. He encourages Mary to write and to find her own voice. Yet he's like most of the men in her orbit, contradictory to the point of being hypocritical; he believes that love binds relationships, not contacts—his family excepted. He refuses to accept her relationship with Percy, a married father, and continues to shun her when she becomes an unwed teenage mother. The story line keeps to the historical time line, with some creative license here and there. In one example, Claire fakes a deadly illness in order to lure her beloved stepsister Mary back to London from a sojourn in Scotland, though her self-centered actions are in keeping with Claire’s onscreen impulsiveness. The overall tone of the film could have been darker; a lot is left out, such as the suicide of Mary's half-sister Fanny at age 22, and Percy and Lord Bryon's probable addiction to opium. Occasionally, the dialogue heavily underlines its themes, but for the most part, the script matter-of-factly interweaves the biographical exposition in comparison to most literary biopics (the recent take on erstwhile family man Charles Dickens in The Man Who Invented Christmas). However, viewers don’t get a sense of poetry or artistry of Shelley's artistic circle. Filmed in Ireland with a deep blue and green color palette, the movie is beautifully designed, while not skirting away from the poverty that the wandering trio of Mary, Percy and her stepsister Claire found themselves in as they wandered through Europe cash poor, escaping the moral condemnation back home. However, there are no sweeping idyllic vistas of Mont Blanc or Lake Geneva, stopovers on their continental exile, though the London of borough of Holborn is now far more scenic and less lugubrious; in Shelley’s day, it was slaughterhouse central. As part of this year’s cottage industry celebrating the bicentennial of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley is an accessible companion to Reef’s work of the same name (where readers can find out the real dirt) and Lita Judge’s illustrated YA biography in verse Mary's Monster (Roaring Brook, 2018), which follows a similar time line to the movie. These three variations of Shelley’s saga easily tie together well. Thanks to such endeavors, one can declaim on a castle top the state of Shelley's current reputation: “It’s alive. It’s alive. It’s alive. It’s alive. It’s alive!” Directed by Haifaa Al Mansour 121 min. Rated PG-13 (mainly for a glimpse of Lord Bryon’s stash of 19-century erotica)

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