Movie Review: ‘Mary Shelley’

Review by Lauryn Angel

Mary Shelley’s first novel, Frankenstein is one of my all-time favorite books, and I’ve always found Shelley herself to be a fascinating figure in her own right. Daughter of two controversial writers – William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft – and married to another – Percy Bysshe Shelley, she had quite a reputation to live up to. So great was this reputation that there are still those who think she did not live up to it, and that her husband and father wrote the novel, or at least made substantial edits to it. Mary Shelley was no stranger to tragedy, as her mother died in childbirth, she lost children of her own, and several people around her committed suicide.

I’ve long thought that Mary Shelley would be a good subject for a biopic. Apparently so did director Haifaa Al-Mansour, who also co-wrote the film with Emma Jensen. As pleased as I am to see Mary Shelley’s life on screen, and the author herself played well enough by Elle Fanning, I have to admit that something fell flat for me. Perhaps it was the liberties taken with the events of Mary Shelley’s life: Al-Mansour and Jensen move Mary’s meeting with Percy Shelley to Mary’s time in Scotland, instead of meeting through his apprenticeship with her father. This change is pretty inexplicable, and seems to take place only to make use of Maisie Williams with a Scottish accent as Mary’s cousin Isabel Baxter. Perhaps my problem with the film is that it sanitizes Mary’s life, focusing on money troubles and glossing over the death of her first child and completely removing her second.

The film is certainly pretty to look at though, with its gothic set pieces and brooding poets in the form of Douglas Booth as Percy Shelley and Tom Sturridge as the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” George Gordon, Lord Byron. It’s easy to understand why Mary Shelley and her half-sister Claire Clairemont (Bel Powley) fell under the spell of Shelley and Byron, as they smolder and misbehave. And Al-Mansour and Jensen show us Percy and Byron on their worst behavior during that famous summer at the Villa Diodati that not only led to the creation of Frankenstein, but tested Mary’s devotion to her husband, as the film reminds us just how horrible Percy and Byron could be.

Perhaps the reason this movie fell flat for me is that I wanted more. The film glosses over some of the tragedies that impacted her, as well as some of the passions that motivated her — Mary did not abandon her home just to become Percy’s housekeeper/slash accountant.

For those who know very little about Mary Shelley, this film is a good, abbreviated start. But fans of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein will likely find this film disappointing, as I did. It’s much like reading a book report that merely skims the surface and leaves out the meat of the story.

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