I have something of a love-hate relationship with Frankenstein – having taught it to A Level English students, I got quite fed up of the character of Frankenstein’s overblown, melodramatic moaning, but of course, I loved the character of the creature and had huge sympathy for him. The achievement of its author, Mary Shelley cannot be overstated, however. For an eighteen-year-old girl to have revolutionised literature, invented at least one new genre and to have created characters that still endure to this day is an unbelievable feat for 1818. This film examines the fascinating story behind the author, her family background and her relationship with her husband, Percy Shelley.
I have been a fan of Elle Fanning for some time now and she was in two of my favourite films of 2016; ‘Neon Demon’ and ‘20th Century Women’. Douglas Booth has certainly carved a niche for himself playing mainly period characters, with variable results. For me, he’s never been as good as he was in Lone Scherfig’s ‘Riot Club’, which got career-best performances out of many of its young cast. Tom Sturridge has also played several mustachioed weasley types in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ and ‘Journey’s End’. Bel Powley greatly impressed me in both ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’ and ‘Carrie Pilby’. Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Mansour has followed up the ground-breaking ‘Wadjda’ by assembling this group of young actors and casting them well – no mean feat when the icons that are Byron and Shelley are involved.
Mary (Fanning) lives with her father – publisher and book-seller William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), her loathed step-mother Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggatt) and beloved step-sister Claire (Powley). Mary’s real mother had been Mary Wollstonecraft – a radical feminist writer, who died shortly after giving birth but continues to have a huge influence on her life. After things become fraught in the family home, Mary is sent to Scotland to stay with the Baxter family, including Isabel Baxter (Maisie Williams). It is here that she first meets Shelley (Booth) and the two fall in love. Back in London, it is revealed that Shelley already has a wife and child. Mary, trying to live up to her mother’s ‘free love’ ideals, doesn’t have a problem with this (at least, at first) and runs away with Claire to join Shelley in ‘modest’ lodgings. After tragedy strikes, the three travel to Geneva to stay with Lord Byron (Sturridge) and his doctor John Polidori (Ben Hardy). Trapped indoors by days of relentless rain, they challenge each other to write ghost stories and the rest, as they say, is history…
Fanning does well with the challenges of the accent and her and Booth have good chemistry together. Powley is a delight, as usual, and Sturridge makes a convincing Byron. Al-Mansour’s direction is impressive – there are lots of visual details that stand out – shots of the sky in particular. Mary’s dreams are fully realised and their influence on Frankenstein is clear. The tragedy in Mary’s life clearly informed her writing, as did her wish to honour her mother’s work and lifestyle choices. The three main characters go through several ups and downs in terms of their fortunes – from a virtual hovel, to a plush house in Bloomsbury and back again. Despite Mary being well ahead of her time in terms of feminism, it is clear that she is still beholden to the men in her life (her father, then her husband) for her circumstances and living conditions. When Mary does come to publish Frankenstein, it is assumed that her husband is the author. So, this film is telling the important behind-the-scenes story behind such a seminal landmark in literature.
‘Mary Shelley’ is an effective period drama, with a very good central performance from Fanning, backed up by a well-cast support. It tells a story that we all should know about with an interesting visual style. It is definitely worth a watch on VOD.