This film is not about Frankenstein. And it shouldn’t be.
In her English language debut, Saudi Arabian director Haifaa al-Mansour gives us a vulnerable glimpse at the mother of science fiction. In Mary Shelley (2017) audiences meet the Gothic writer as a rebellious 16-year-old reading next to her mother’s grave. Mary’s disagreements with her stepmother get her sent off to Scotland by her father, the radical William Godwin. After leaving for the open air of the Scottish countryside, she falls for Percy Shelley.
Elle Fanning’s Mary crushes hard on the poet, yet maintains her cool long enough to deliver edgy lines that would make any goth proud. Before long, her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Bell Powley) fakes sick to bring Mary back to the family’s London bookshop. Percy soon follows, under the guise of becoming her father’s pupil.
The two exchange notes between the store’s bookshelves and have secret rendezvous in the graveyard. Mary squeals with Claire over his affections until she bumps into his wife and daughter. In a move reminiscent of Jane Eyre, she scolds Percy (Douglas Booth) for expecting her to settle for this arrangement. But their intense love prevails, and we cut to the pair asking Godwin for his permission to be together. An advocate of free love, anarchy, and atheism, he hypocritically refuses to stay firm to his beliefs when his own daughter is acting on them. In real life, Godwin dismissed Mary for two years, until she and Percy officially married following the suicide of his first wife.
Mary decided to run away with Percy anyways and takes her precocious stepsister with her. The three face ridicule and exclusion from 19th-century proper British society. Still, they enjoy being young, dramatic, and full of life. The facade cracks only as publishers reject Percy’s new book and creditors come to collect his debts. Mary and Percy argue often but passionately.
At this point, some viewers might be wondering where Mary’s famous monster is. She scribbles in montages and narrative overlays, but supporting characters often inquire condescendingly about her writing abilities. After all, accomplished authors surrounded Mary from birth. But this film promised a coming of age tale, not an absolute on the writing process.
Percy challenges Mary for not practicing an open relationship of the likes she supports. She retorts, with emotional maturity, that she supports all lifestyles, including her own monogamous desires. This is after she resists the advances of one of Percy’s literary bros, while also pregnant with her first child. Clara is born prematurely and lives only a few days, leaving Mary bedridden with grief.
It is this heartbreak, along with longing for her mother — the famed feminist Mary Wollstonecraft — which leads to Mary’s fascination with human reanimation and the loss later evident in Frankenstein.
And it is during a wild visit to the estate of the poet Lord Byron — played as an eccentric superstar by Tom Sturridge — that tensions between the characters come to a height. It is also where, during a storm full of Frankenstein-esque lightning, the friends participate in a challenge to write the best ghost story ever.
The film finally gives viewers the expected artist-shuts-themselves-in-to-complete-a-brilliant-masterpiece montage, a culmination of the scenes in which Mary is brushed off by the men in her life and haunted by personal tragedy. We see Frankenstein published anonymously and attributed to Percy Shelley at first, but in the end Godwin creates an edition which credits Mary as its author.
Let Mary Be Contrary
Critics have described the film as a polite glossing over of Mary’s life. Or worse, one which makes her subordinate to the men around her. However, the film dares to show that a woman like Mary can also be a mother, can also be a hopelessly romantic teenager, can also be hurt. It is a relief to watch a troubled and incomplete Mary Shelley, rather than have her deified as an infallible literary genius.
The pacing of some scenes slows the film down, but the swelling soundtrack keeps viewers immersed in Mary’s world. The set design is flawless despite being filmed in several countries. The costumes are semi-accurate in a reflection of the characters’ dismissal of sophistication. Apparently, Fanning and Powley refused to wear the restrictive corsets.
The film is not ground-breaking for a period drama. But its acknowledgment of the nuanced youth Mary Shelley endured is in its favor. After all, there are dozens of recycled, cheesy Frankenstein movie adaptations. It is about time the ultimate goth teen got her own silver screen time.
We screened the film at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.