This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s seminal Frankenstein, so what better time for a movie telling the author’s own dramatic and tumultuous story? Unfortunately, Mary Shelley (shot long enough ago that its now 20-year-old star Elle Fanning has a tutor listed in the end credits) isn’t nearly as compelling a saga as the one she dreamed up during her fateful sojourn in Geneva with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and others.
There was a flurry of films in the late 1980s dealing specifically with that gathering: Ken Russell’s delirious Gothic, Ivan Passer’s Haunted Summer and Gonzalo Suárez’s oddly titled Rowing With the Wind (starring Hugh Grant as Lord Byron and Elizabeth Hurley as Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont). Mary Shelley is the first movie I can think of to address the broader scope of her life, which was marked by an abundance of radicalism, achievement and tragedy. It’s a lot for one feature film to take on, and this one does so in a well-appointed, well-acted but facile and overexplicated manner that makes one look forward to National Geographic’s upcoming Genius series about her, which will presumably give her complexities more room to breathe.
Director Haifaa Al-Mansour and screenwriter Emma Jensen introduce us to Mary (who is actually Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin for the period the movie covers) as a London teenager with a passion for reading and writing Gothic literature. As played with sensitivity, poise and a discernable but suppressed inner fire by Fanning, Mary chafes against polite society in general and the restrictions of her stepmother (Joanne Froggatt) in particular. Mary’s father is William Godwin, once an author himself now running a struggling bookstore, and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, who died days after she was born, was an early feminist and a proponent of what would become known in the 1960s as free love.
Mary’s ambitions and attitudes indicate that she is very much both her father and mother’s daughter, and it gets to be too much for her stepmom, who packs her off to Scotland (where Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams turns up in a thankless role). There, she first makes the acquaintance of Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), who shares her nonconformist views. After Mary moves back home, Percy quickly follows and the two begin a passionate but fraught relationship defined by moments of both bliss and heartbreak, along with a lot of on-the-nose dialogue. Too much of what is said in Mary Shelley serves only to double-underline the film’s themes, and even basic exposition: “I thought we would never escape the rain,” Mary says as she and Percy escape the rain by ducking into a church. It is here that the couple bond over their atheist sentiments before having their first kiss, an improprietous action that speaks louder than many of the film’s words. Fanning and Booth, who hits the right notes as Percy, have genuine chemistry, though the movie is ultimately more concerned with what pushes them apart than what draws them together.
As Mary and Percy move out on their own into a scandalous, non-wedded living situation, bringing Claire (a luminous Bel Powley) with them, and then come into the orbit of Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge, made up and capering about as if he was part of Russell’s Gothic ensemble), there are distracting gaps in the narrative, and curious elisions in Mary’s history. Much is made of Percy’s polyamorous pursuits and their effect on Mary, yet the movie hints but doesn’t commit to confirming that Claire was one of his conquests. Mary and Percy’s first child dies shortly after birth, and the effect is devastating, yet their two subsequent real-life children (one of whom accompanied the couple to Geneva, both of whom also died very young) are ignored by the filmmakers.
What we do see is organized less in the service of a coherent or forceful narrative and more toward reinforcing the film’s thesis of how Mary’s unfortunate circumstances inspired her tale of a scientifically created man abandoned by his maker. Al-Mansour and Jensen elicit a certain amount of sympathy for Mary, while incorporating persuasive period atmosphere and occasional intriguing details and connections that casual Frankenstein fans might not know. (For example, Henry Fuseli, whose famous painting The Nightmare is frequently cited as an influence on the novel, was an early lover of Mary Wollstonecraft.) Their bigger picture, though, is ultimately unsatisfying, particularly the Hollywood-phony climactic scene resolving the two major complications of Mary’s life.
Getting back to those end credits, it’s puzzling to note that they include the “The characters, entities and incidents depicted in this motion picture are fictitious…” disclaimer. The issue with Mary Shelley isn’t that the story it tells is untrue, but that it doesn’t tell enough of it.