Mary Shelley a Tepid Take on its Namesake


MARY SHELLEY (2018 USA release)

Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour

IFC Films, 121 minutes, PG-13 (adult situations)




Mary Godwin Shelley (1797-1851) was a fascinating individual. She was the daughter of proto-feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft and theoretical anarchist William Godwin. Her mother died shortly after giving birth, but Mary was well educated. She grew up strong- willed, intelligent, and stroppy enough to defy her father by becoming the lover of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and eventually his wife. She is best known to history as the author of Frankenstein, though it was first published under Percy's name. She badgered her father to put her name on the cover when Percy drowned in 1822. What's not to like about such a firebrand?


The answer, alas, is the lame biopic Shelley, which doesn't have the courage to spotlight the very qualities that made Mary’s name immortal. Mary is played by Elle Fanning, who is shortchanged by an immature script from Emma Jensen and PBS-Lite misdirection from Haifaa al-Mansour. We certainly get no sense that al-Mansour is a controversial figure in her native Saudi Arabia for daring to become the filmmaker.


We get a quick drive-by of Mary's early life, but most of the film concentrates on the period between 1816-22. Mary is presented more as a coltish girl-woman rather than learned or strong. She has a troubled relationship with her stepmother Mary Jane Clairmont Godwin (Joanne Froggart), and is drawn to the dashing Shelley (Douglas Booth), who is being tutored in moral philosophy by Mary's father (Stephen Dillane). In an act of defiance, Mary elopes, which was very problematic as Percy was already married. In the script, Mary's father is outraged–understandably so, but he acts more like a scolding schoolmaster than an anarchist. (Percy and Mary tied the knot properly when his lawful wife died in 1816.)


The film accurately resents Percy Shelley as a fop content to burn through family money rather than exert himself, but much of the film is just filler to get us to Switzerland, where Mary's sister-in-law Claire (Bel Powley) fawns over Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), who has impregnated her. He treats her like a vase of dead flowers and casts her aside. In 1816, Byron's Swiss villa is more famously recalled for a challenge in which Byron, Percy, physician John William Polidori, and Mary compete to see who can concoct the best ghost story. You know what had its genesis from Mary. You can also understand her fury when publishers insisted it bear her husband's name. And so it would remain until Mary reconciled with her father and Percy was pushing up poppycocks.


The film’s central subject is too tasty to call Mary Shelley a complete waste of time, but it’s absolutely fair to call it a waste of potential. Fanning is surprisingly flat, almost as if she recognized this is as a TV special gone wrong. A further problem occurs in presenting Claire Clairmont. She too was a wronged woman, but Powley plays her as so cloying and histrionic that you could see why Byron wanted nothing more to do with her. It would have been nice had the film delved into the gender dynamics that allowed him to walk away with nothing more than a vague promise to give financial support to the child. (He eventually took over his daughter’s care with the stipulation that Claire had to stay away.) We get no sense of Claire’s intellect, only that she was a royal pain in the neck.


I could go on with similar critiques of other characters in this film, but you probably get the idea that most of them are exactly that – just characters, not the embodiment of complex historical figures. Mary Shelley bombed at the box office, so we can only hope that a better script and director will come along, as there hasn’t been an interesting  version of the Mary/Percy/Byron tale since Ken Russell's Gothic (1986).


Rob Weir

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