How did the author of Frankenstein write the classic horror novel when she was just a teenager? With the female empowerment biopic Mary Shelley, the extraordinary story of this 19th Century sensation hits the big screen with mixed results. This is the second feature of Haifaa al-Mansour, the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia, who debuted in 2012 with the exquisite Wadja.
All the right details are there. Young Mary (Elle Fanning) scribbles ghost stories in secret while minding the family bookstore. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft — made famous with her non-traditional love affairs and A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) —died during childbirth. Mary wrestles with guilt, loneliness, and worshipful adoration towards the mother she never met, and seeks to embody her radical ideals. Her father, philosopher William Godwin (Stephen Dilane), sends her to Scotland, where she meets the poet Percy Shelley (the beguiling Douglas Booth). In him she finds a man who shares her passion for literature and the unconventional (she’s 16, he’s 21); a scandalous romance begins. He follows her back to London, where she discovers he has a wife and child. Convinced of Percy’s proclamations that Mary is his true love, she packs up and runs off with him, her stepsister Claire (Bel Powley) in tow, and quickly discovers that lofty ideas and reality are radically different things.
Mary discovers Percy’s romantic ideals of life are comprised of lavish spending on credit, running out on debts in the middle of the night, sex with anything that moves (including her step-sister), and the inability to properly care for his children. Into this perfect storm steps Lord Byron (a ferocious performance by Tom Sturridge), who makes Percy look like an amateur in monstrous behavior. Having burned every bridge with her family, Mary learns through the school of hard knocks.
Elle Fanning is clearly fully committed to the role, but seems miscast, often coming off more sullen than gritty; the personality to turn tremendous hardship into terrifying literary gold before her 21st birthday never quite comes through. However, the biggest problem with Mary Shelley is that it doesn’t fully trust the power of the subject material itself. Mary’s empowered monologues always come at the perfect moment where one should say such speeches, written as sound bites for contemporary rally cries rather than something that feels true to her Century. What could have been best portrayed with solid acting is replaced with oration, like a scene where Mary explains in exhausting detail all the ways that she’s not oppressed and regrets nothing after Percy sees himself in Frankenstein. In another scene, Claire explains to Mary that the novel is conceived from all they endured together.
Instead of infusing the script with a kind of creativity reflective of the young woman’s own brilliance, Mary Shelley often chooses the least creative ways to tell the story. The clunky soundtrack is too jubilant and reassuring for the dark subject matter, like it’s constantly saying “Don’t worry! She perseveres!” rather than forwarding the emotional truth of a scene. Frankenstein was a revolutionary, profoundly dark, disturbing, and (pardon the pun) electrifying novel that’s still widely read two centuries later. I kept waiting for Mary Shelley to come alive with that level of electrifying darkness but it doesn’t quite get there. In trying so hard to make this a female empowerment story, the legendary subject often gets lost.
The best scenes of Mary Shelley are the ones where Mary is writing. The opening scene, a blank screen with just the sounds of pencil to paper and Shelley mumbling the story to herself, is exhilarating. A woman portrayed in the act of artistic creation for her own pleasure still feels revolutionary. Elle Fanning does her best work here when she’s capturing the rapture of being in the creative zone. A scene where Mary is lying on a stack of books while writing a story says everything about her. There’s another beautiful scene where Mary asserts her right to keep her work private and not have it belittled by a stepmother hell-bent on making her into a properly subservient woman. Her passion for engaging with life on her own terms and an unwavering faith in her own intelligence translates into the confidence it took to write her historical novel. The scenes where Mary is just being Mary are where the film truly shines. Perhaps this is a hidden brilliance of Mary Shelley — the only exciting parts are the ones where she’s turned back towards her own creative voice, beaming with the quiet unshakable confidence of being unapologetically herself.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs April 18 to April 29. Visit the official Tribeca Film Festival website for more info.