‘Mary Shelley’: Film Review | TIFF 2017

A passionate film about a woman’s ideas.

Elle Fanning plays the English author of 'Frankenstein' and teenage lover of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in Haifaa Al Mansour’s biopic.

Mary Shelley is a luscious-looking spectacle, drenched in the colors and visceral sensations of nature, the sensuality of young lovers, the passionate disappointment of loss and betrayal. But above all it is a film about ideas that breaks out of the well-worn mold of period drama (partly, anyway) by reaching deeply into the mind of the extraordinary woman who wrote the Gothic evergreen Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus when she was 18. Making Mary into a woman in control of her life and choices rather than a victim of cruel and insensitive men, director Haifaa Al Mansour shows how the struggles of her youth swiftly matured her understanding of women's place in the world. It is the point where the film has the most chance of connecting with audiences open to the message.

Despite some weaknesses in the story and pacing, Al Mansour and star Elle Fanning achieve a lot of good things. The actress' vivid portrayal of the writer as a young author shows an understanding that, for all its sadness and distress, her life shone with greatness. She is a survivor who has gone through hell and come out on the other side, scarred but wiser, while the famous men in her life have to hang their heads and acknowledge her talent. And Fanning stirringly articulates, in a surprisingly resolute London accent, the lessons she has learned. 

It’s not hard to see a continuity here for Al Mansour, who leapt into the spotlight with her liberating first film Wadjda, set in the oppressive society of her native Saudi Arabia. Both films deal with the determination of a female protagonist to accomplish an important goal that will confirm her independence. In Wadjda, the heroine was a 12-year-old tomboy whose heart was set on a bike of her own. Here, 16-year-old Mary wants to become a writer, following in the footsteps of her mother, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and her politically radical father William Godwin (Stephen Dillane).

Enamored of ghost stories, she begins scribbling a tale fraught with burning eyes and icy faces. Her mother died soon after she was born and her father, who has educated her to think outside the box, tells her she needs to find her own voice. To clear her head, he sends her to the wilds of Scotland and to the spacious home of his fellow radical William Baxter. There Mary is befriended by his daughter (Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones) and soon finds herself smitten by a handsome young poet passing by on a visit, Percy Bysshe Shelley (a winning performance from the darkly romantic Douglas Booth of The Riot Club), who is already celebrated at the tender age of 21. 

Only later, when he follows her back to London, does she stumble onto the truth: He is married but has abandoned his wife and young daughter on the pretext that he is a free spirit who can’t be bound by the ties of marriage. It should be a warning to Mary, but she is too young and her attraction to him is too strong to resist. She elopes with him one night, taking her step-sister Claire (Bel Powley of The Diary of a Teenage Girl) along with her.

Since Percy’s aristocratic father has cut him off (mainly over his radical political beliefs about redistributing his wealth to the needy, though the film doesn't go into that), they end up in ratty basement lodgings which are just fine for Mary. She is with the man she loves and out of her father’s oppressive household. The free-thinking trio cavort like latter-day hippies, indulging in claret parties and, of course, living outside marriage and the social conventions of the day.

Mary believes that people should live and love as they wish. The problem is that she wishes to love only Percy, while he wishes to love other women. He seems happy when she informs him she’s pregnant, but there in the distance looms his wife Harriet with his abandoned daughter, staring at them like a curse. Their baby dies soon after it is born, and Mary is inconsolable.

Al Mansour and screenwriter Emma Jensen take liberties with the historical record, leaving out the trio’s journey through France and Italy, for example. In the film they are still living in London when they meet Lord Byron at the theater. With his eyes rimmed in black and a wandering lascivious hand, Tom Sturridge’s Byron is a jarring caricature of the English poet and peer, an unappealing heel who takes advantage of Claire’s foolishness and gets her pregnant. While staying in his sprawling mansion in Switzerland, Mary’s eyes are fully opened to Percy’s unfaithful nature; it is there that she is stimulated to express her feelings of extreme loneliness and abandonment in the story of Dr. Frankenstein’s monstrous creature.

The final irony is that, although both Percy and her father recognize her novel as a milestone and a “message for mankind,” the only way Mary can get it published is anonymously, given that many people in literary circles believe Shelley really wrote it, not her. Fanning's Mary storms into the final scenes in a cold-burning fury at the way she is treated just because she’s a woman.

There are some annoying historical anomalies in the dialogue (“I have no problem with that,” “I’m waiting to reach out,” “We’ll meet amazing people”), but they are glitches; most of the film’s lines ring truer to the period. As horns lock between Mary and the increasingly dissolute Percy, she comes to a sober realization of the cruelty of men and the consequences of her mistakes. Yet still she can look him in the eye and say, “My choices made me who I am. I regret nothing.”

Production companies: Gidden Media, Parallel Films
Cast: Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Joanne Froggatt, Tom Sturridge, Maisie Williams, Stephen Dillane, Ben Hardy
Director: Haifaa Al Mansour
Screenwriter: Emma Jensen
Producers: Amy Baer, Alan Moloney, Ruth Coady
Executive producers: Johanna Hogan, Peter Watson, Matthew Baker, Isabel Davis, Chrles Auty, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Emma Jensen, Joannie Burstein, Rebecca Miller, Mark Amin
Director of photography: David Ungaro
Production designer: Paki Smith
Costume designer:
Editor: Alex Mackie
Music: Amelia Warner
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala)
World sales: 
HanWay Films

120 minutes