11 Jul 2018

Review - Mary Shelley

From At The Movies, 7:31 pm on 11 July 2018

With Mary Shelley, Haifaa Al-Mansour makes her Hollywood directorial debut.

Mary Shelley tells the story of an influential author and her relationship with two of England's greatest poets. It stars Elle Fanning, Bel Powley and Maisie Williams.

Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley.

Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley. Photo: HanWay Films

Haifaa Al-Mansour, who made headlines a couple of years as the first female director in Saudi Arabia with her acclaimed Arab film Wadjda, makes her Hollywood directorial debut with this.

The real-life Mary Shelley was remarkable for many reasons. The daughter of famously free-thinking writers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, she eloped with the well-known poet and rake Percy Bysshe Shelley while still in her teens.

But Mary Shelley is most famous as the writer of one of the great horror novels, Frankenstein.

The young Mary – Mary Godwin at the time – is played by American star on the rise Elle Fanning – she was in The Beguiled last year.  

And she’s supported by other strong young actresses to watch, including Bel Powley – one of the best things in a comedy romp called A Royal Night Out a couple of years agoand Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams. 

The male co-stars seem to suffer by comparison – despite Douglas Booth and Tom Sturridge threatening to be prettier than the ladies, playing shallow, glam-rock versions of, respectively, Shelley and Lord Byron.

Shelley meets Mary at an uncle’s stately home, and they chat about literature, which back in the early 1800s seems to have been the equivalent of pop music.  

Certainly, Shelley is treated like a rock star everywhere he goes, and Mary finds herself strangely drawn to him.

Meanwhile, her half-sister Claire – played by Bel Powley – has struck up an acquaintance with an even bigger rock star, Lord Byron – heavily made up and looking like a member of Duran Duran. 

He invites Claire, Mary and Percy to Geneva for fun and free-thinking on the continent.

Mary runs off with Shelley, despite discovering late in the day that he’s already married, with a six-year-old daughter. 

Eventually though Mary becomes disillusioned with the bohemian life-style, particularly when Shelley suggests a more open relationship.

All this rigmarole is clearly intended to point out that Mary Shelley’s greatest hit is not the mere blood-curdler we’ve become used to after a century of horror B-movies about Baron Frankenstein and his monstrous creation. 

As much as anything, it’s a novel about abandonment – and the point that director and writer Al-Mansour wants to make is that only a woman could have written it.

Despite its best intentions, Mary Shelley does clunk a little when it’s attempting to suggest how relevant the story is today.

I was more interested in how young everyone was at the time of the famous night in Geneva when the ghost story competition was suggested.

Byron and Shelley were in their early twenties at the height of their fame, while Mary was barely that. 

But apart from reflecting that, there’s not enough for the actors to do, apart from Fanning.   And frankly some of the other actors aren’t up to what’s required of them. 

Certainly, any parallels between the burgeoning feminism of the time and the position of women today are a bit of a stretch. And it’s hard to care enough about these characters to make that effort.

In short, a bit of a waste.

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