“It’s wonderful to see women stepping out of line,” said “Mary Shelley” director Haifaa al-Mansour when she introduced the world premiere of her film on Saturday night at the Toronto International Film Festival. The Saudi Arabia-born director could have been talking about her own journey to become a film director, but also about the subject of her film, the 19th century writer whose first edition of “Frankenstein” was issued anonymously because publishers of the time didn’t feel that the horror story was appropriate subject matter for a young woman.
“Mary Shelley,” which stars Elle Fanning as the title character and Douglas Booth as her partner, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, is a female empowerment movie on many levels, from the women-heavy crew to the characters who are forced to endure lines like this one, from Lord Byron: “I’ve always believed that a woman should be intelligent enough to understand what I’m saying, but not intelligent enough to form ideas.”
In a way, the subject matter has ties to al-Mansour’s last film, “Wadjda.” That drama, which competed for the foreign-language Oscar in 2012, followed a young girl who defied Saudi norms by wanting to ride a bicycle; it clearly came from the director’s experiences growing up in a repressive patriarchal society.
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But there’s a huge difference between a little indie set in al-Mansour’s homeland and a large-scale period drama set in 19th century England, Scotland and Austria. And while “Mary Shelley” has its stirring moments, much of it is coming from Shelley’s own prose, it also tends to lose the thread amid the occasionally overblown melodrama.
This is particularly true in the lengthy stretch in which Mary, Percy and Mary’s sister Claire (Bel Powley) go to Vienna to visit Lord Byron, who gazes at everyone with heavy-lidded, libidinous eyes, has sex with everybody but Mary and inspires a couple of classic works of literature. (“Frankenstein” is one, of course; the other is “The Vampyre,” written by a physician guest but claimed by Lord Byron.)
The sequence is meant to be an extended fever dream of sorts, but it quickly moves past the effectively hallucinatory into the merely silly. As the oily host, Tom Sturridge doesn’t so much deliver a performance as an extended pose, though maybe that’s what Lord Byron deserves.
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For a director with experience on this scale, al-Mansour has a keen visual sense and keeps things moving. Fanning, meanwhile, makes good use of her essential etherealness, which can easily suggest a woman in touch with the shadow world.
But once it gets past the early scenes establishing Mary’s life, “Mary Shelley” never quite builds to the portrait it needs to be. Sure, all the building blocks for “Frankenstein” are ticked off one by one — her mother’s early death, a sideshow at which she saw a dead frog re-animated electrically, her child’s death and the feeling of loneliness caused by Percy’s neglect — but a checklist isn’t enough, not when Mary Shelly’s scary world is being turned into a silly one.