There aren’t many authors who can claim to have had as meaningful and lasting an impact as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, whose masterpiece “Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus” made an indelible effect on the culture that persists and permeates through the present day. What’s more, the real life of Shelley is a fascinating tapestry of challenged social mores, which parallel the themes of her work in dramatically intriguing ways.
So you’d think a movie based on the life of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley would be very, very interesting. But in the case of Haifaa al-Mansour’s “Mary Shelley,” you would be very, very wrong. The film is handsomely produced but as dramatically inert as a high school oral book report, giving audiences the gist of the “Frankenstein” author’s story but never, ironically, bringing her to life.
“Mary Shelley” begins in the author’s late teens, where Mary (Elle Fanning) lives with her father, author William Godwin (Stephen Dillane, “Game of Thrones”), and the ghost (figurative, not literal) of her dead mother, a free-thinker whose grave Mary visits often. Mary already writes, but her father dismisses her work as that of an imitator, and he doesn’t have very nice things to say about the horror genre, either.
To get Mary away from his second wife, for the sake of everyone’s sanity, Godwin sends Mary to live with relatives in the country, where they host wicked poetry slams, and where a young handsome writer named Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) dazzles her with his free-style approach, his subtle-but-not-subtle flirtations, and his support for her own writing career.
It’s an idyllic scenario, ruined when Mary has to return home to take care of her sick sister, Claire (Bel Powley, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”). Shelley follows her home but — surprise! — he’s been married this whole time, and Mary has to decide whether to toss the cad out on his ear or to live with him in decadent, free-spirited sin, spiting her father and society as a whole.
Naturally she opts for the latter, but it turns out living in sin is boring as hell. To hear al-Mansour (“Wadjda”) tell it, the hedonism of Percy Shelley and the idealism of Mary Shelley are but limp overtures, masking deep-seeded insecurities. And while that may or may not have been the case, the film presents repetitious arguments in favor of those convictions, only to consistently follow them with melodramatic reversals and tonal finger-waggings.
“Mary Shelley,” the movie, seems to be very disappointed in Mary Shelley, the person. For all the film’s attempts to filter her life through a modern lens, right down to the perfect knit beanie you can probably still buy at Urban Outfitters, it presents every unconventional lifestyle as an obvious mistake, which leads to marital misery, attempted sexual assault and dead family members.
Even the scene everybody’s waiting for — that fateful trip to the estate of Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge, “Journey’s End”), which led to the creation of both “Frankenstein” and John Polidori’s “The Vampire.” previously dramatized in the 1980s films “Gothic” and “Haunted Summer” — plays out like a morose hangover, with Mary waiting patiently for everyone else to stop having fun. Granted, her inner life is wrecked and tormented, but the movie fails to present her outer life as anything other than a justification of her misery.
It’s unfortunate when any biopic reduces an artist to “Sad Life, Good Art,” and this is no exception. But at least all that misery leads to a cathartic burst of energy, on the part of the character as well as the film. “Frankenstein” explodes onto Mary’s pages with bursts of ink, and when she finishes she drops her novel onto Percy’s desk with a satisfying wallop, the 19th-century version of dropping the mic.
The sense of dramatic satisfaction is short-lived. Indeed, the message that Mary Shelley needed to be free of the dominance of disappointing men in order to compose her masterpiece was already undone by the film’s baffling decisions to precede her writing sprint with a voice-over of writing advice from her father. And in case you somehow missed every other plot point in the movie, Claire practically explains the theme of “Frankenstein” to the camera, lest we didn’t know that the novel was about abandonment.
Never mind all the other things it’s also about, apparently, and never mind all the other female horror authors of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s generation, and the generation previous. The film culminates in a series of publishers balking at Mary Shelley’s opus, not just because they suspect her husband really wrote it, but also because they say women shouldn’t be interested in the macabre.
It’s as though the film is oblivious to the fact that some of the earliest, most influential and bestselling gothic horror authors, prior to the publication of “Frankenstein,” were already women. It would hardly take a writer like Ann Radcliffe to imagine a writer like Ann Radcliffe rolling over in her grave.
“Mary Shelley” is a simplistic approach to the artist’s life, framed as a not-so compelling argument. The film undercuts its admiration of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by judging, harshly, her life choices and reducing her timeless masterpiece to simplistic metaphor for a lousy marriage. Mary Shelley deserves better than “Mary Shelley.”