'Mary Shelley' Review: A Lovely But Half-Rendered Sketch

Bel Powley Elle Fanning Douglas Booth And Tom Sturridge Mary Shelley X

Mary Shelley fashions a lovely sketch of a bildungsroman with blushes of color, but it is short of the fully rendered and vibrant portrait its namesake deserves.

“Do you dare to question a woman’s ability to feel loss?” Mary Shelley chides a publisher that rejects her work. Elle Fanning beholds such restless ferocity as Mary Shelley, the 19th-century pioneer of science fiction and the maker of the iconic Frankenstein’s monster. Fanning flairs precociousness with a steely shouldn’t-care-what-anyone-thinks visage with a touch of vulnerability. It’s a shame that Mary Shelley, a biopic romance, overall seems unsure of how to maximize its concept.

Before she would adopt the Shelley surname, 16-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin has a complicated heritage in society as the product of her famed intellectual papa William Godwin (Stephen Dillane) and his late lover (later wife, in order to legitimize her into society) Mary Wollenscraft. Young Mary is a budding rebel with a feminist tongue. She has an affinity for ghost stories and scrawling ghoulish stories into her journal, a past time that her loving but stern father finds to be on the lowbrow side of literary pursuits.

Then Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth) gallivants into her life, sneaking into an apprenticeship with her father to woo her. He’s 21 but has that magnetizing bad-boy teenage spirit, romancing her with a poetical tongue and philosophical musings. But Mary encounters the beleaguered Mrs. Shelley (Ciara Charteris, who strikes a memorable impression with her two minutes of screen time) and his daughter right on the street. The wife of Mary’s love pegs Mary as Percy’s latest conquest and drops stern, yet compassionate, warnings to not be seduced by her husband.

But convinced that she can survive social ostracization and love conquers all marital bounds and propriety, Mary runs off with Percy and takes her vivacious half-sister Claire (Bel Powley) with her. Of course, her passionate love can’t override the misery of misfortunes: the loss of her father’s respect, Percy’s broken promises for prosperity, and the death of their first child.

This film comprehends the condescending delusions and hypocritical aberrations that self-proclaimed liberal men like Percy impose on women. Percy finds himself befuddled that Mary does not tolerate his free love philosophy—related to the speculative hints of his affair with her sister. He believes Mary should be conscious and grateful that she can exercise romance without commitment boundaries. Mary respects the free love ideal but personally holds the monogamous mindset. She later meets the extreme foil of Percy in the poet Lord Byron (with scene-stealing swagger by Tom Sturridge), who becomes Claire’s lover before dismissing her as a dalliance. As mansplainers of the 1800s romanticism movement, Percy and Byron brandish their radicalism as a license to toy with women’s feelings and hold women culpable once the men are called out on their exploitation. They trivialize the emotional reservations of their women as moral failings rather than individual preferences. Mary learns the hard way she must negotiate her radical principles with social and emotional pragmatism and find her place in an intellectual society occupied by men.

Director Haifaa al-Mansour features a safe contemporary bent while grounding it in its time period. With a translucent score by Amelia Warner, the naturalistic Gothic atmosphere permeates Mary’s world, heralding how her ordinary realities will blossom into extraordinary literature. But the film has deficiencies concerning the creation of her novel and the beats of tragedy that inspired it.

The film finds some firecracker sparks when Mary dreams of the iconic laboratory scene when Frankenstein brings his creation to life, spurred by viewing a Phantasmagoria show. The dialogue claims that her anguish ties to the monster’s in the book. On paper, the interpretation is accurate. But visually, there’s little sense of Mary expressing herself through her literary creature onscreen. The movie treats its audience to voiceovers and flashes of her prose, but Mary’s reality and her fiction never appear married as the script insists, no substantial ties that bind the elements of her life and her literary contents. By the time Mary accomplishes her first draft, transforming her successive anguishes into the text that would become the Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus first edition, the result is obligatory rather than elevated with triumph.

In a misguided move, Mary Shelley also pays tribute to the heroine’s romantic and maternal sorrows that fueled her novel, as if suffering should be celebrated rather than the sufferer herself. “I regret nothing. My choices made me who I am,” she proclaims to Percy. But there are more nuanced ways to address the inspiration of hardships rather than to glorify the circumstances.

The conclusion of Mary’s budding womanhood is cheapened by the emphasis on her flawed lover’s redemption and their reconciliation, with him asserting her literary value for her. True to history, her first edition of Frankenstein was not published under her name but had an introduction by Percy Shelley to increase the book’s marketability—and insinuating that Percy authored it. Mary watches passively as Percy affirms her authorial credit of Frankenstein before a crowd of men, and then they seal their reunion with a kiss. It’s not a negative thing—not an unfeminist thing—that Shelley’s public success relied on the circumstantial realities of male connections endorsing her work. But after the film sets up Mary to find self-actualization in the literary world, the romantic finale seems to be a cop-out distraction from studying Mary’s limited agency over her authorial ship.

Mary Shelley fashions a lovely sketch of a bildungsroman with blushes of color, but it is short of the fully rendered and vibrant portrait its namesake deserves.

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