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Review: Mary Shelley

July 13, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

A biopic of the Frankenstein author, Mary Shelley takes the pretty extraordinary story behind one of the most beloved horror novels of all time, and turns it into a decently acted but otherwise fairly ordinary costume drama.

The film opens with Mary (Elle Fanning) as a free-spirited teenager living in London in 1814, reading a book at the gravesite of her mother and namesake Mary Wollstonecraft, an author and feminist scholar who died shortly after giving birth to her.

Mary is being raised by her political theorist father William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), who has instilled in her a love of books but doesn’t want her reading ghost stories, and she often clashes with her stepmother (Joanne Froggatt), who wants her to be more ladylike.

But a spark is lit in her life when she falls in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), a slightly older poet who becomes her father’s protégé, and she embarks on a passionate affair with him. When Mary’s father discovers that Percy has abandoned his own wife (Ciara Charteris) and daughter in order to be with her, he disavows their relationship, prompting them to move away to a house in France, along with Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley).

Much of the film focuses on the early stages of Mary’s relationship with Percy, which had its share of ups and downs. This leads to the famous summer that Mary, Percy and Claire spent with Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge, chewing up the scenery) and Dr. John Polidori (Ben Hardy) in Switzerland. It’s here that the inspiration for her novel and most famous creation is born, prompted by a challenge put forth by the grandiose Byron for each of them to write a fantasy novel.

While Mary Shelley is often entertaining, and Elle Fanning does fine work in the leading role, the biggest problem with the film is that it doesn’t spend anywhere near enough time focusing on the actual writing and publication of Frankenstein. The conception of the novel only really comes into focus close to three quarters of the way through the two hour running time, relegating what is arguably the most interesting aspect of Mary Shelley’s life to the last act. This is ultimately the film’s greatest mistake.

The story of how Frankenstein came to be is fascinating enough on its own, and could have easily filled out more of the running time. The author started working on the story when she was just eighteen years old, and it was initially published anonymously with an introduction by Percy Shelley, which led many readers to assume he had written it. This was due to the fact that the publishers were apprehensive to release such a dark book under a woman’s name, and she only received credit for it later on.

The film does show some of the moments of heartbreak and longing in Shelley’s life that inspired her to write the story of a stitched together corpse reanimated through science, but it never goes particularly deep into her psyche, offering only a rudimentary study of her as a character. The actual pen-to-paper writing of the novel is reduced only to a short montage. There is a lot of nuance here that feels glossed over, and as a result the film never quite comes alive like it should.

The film is directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, who made her feature debut with the very fine Saudi Arabian female empowerment fable Wadjda several years back, and it has a few snags that a more experienced filmmaker might have done a better job of smoothing over. The period elements of the film are attractive to look at, but the production also feels somewhat stagey at times, and the dialogue in Emma Jensen’s screenplay can veer towards melodrama.

For a movie about a revolutionary story by an author who was ahead of her time, Mary Shelley is hardly groundbreaking stuff. While it’s alright as a period romance, and the performances are decent, the film would have been wise to focus more on the actual writing of Frankenstein, in which case it might have left more of an impact.

Mary Shelley is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

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