In theory, “Mary Shelley” should be a fascinating biopic. It chronicles the adolescent years of the enigmatic writer of “Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus,” the daughter of intellectual rebel William Godwin and proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Born in 1797, Mary Shelley had a rich and long life, during which she loved passionately and suffered greatly for it. She was an incredible storyteller and a powerful female figure within the Gothic tradition. Perhaps counterintuitively, Shelley’s life is almost too much to cover, which is why the film easily loses control, unsure of what parts of her life to tackle. Instead of picking one or two key points, it attempts to address all aspects of Shelley’s life. Even though it is helmed by a compelling lead actress in the form of a mature and haunted Elle Fanning, “Mary Shelley” is too unfocused and scattered to feel like a complete, self-possessed production.
The plot tends towards the episodic, because it tries too hard to cover all the bases of Mary’s youth. This means that the film’s themes and topics are inherently varied, and not enough to tie the entire narrative together. At times, we focus on Mary’s melancholy childhood living in the rougher parts of London with a terse stepmother. At others, we must watch Mary grapple with the legacy of her famous parents, in whose shadow she yearns to stop living in. Before long, we step away from this period of her life, then enter the teenage years after she meets her lover and eventual husband Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), and delve into the nuances of Mary’s complex, fragile, and turbulent relationship with Percy, as well as the principle-free love that they adopted. By the end, however, the plot is hijacked again by the need to trace the inspiration and creation of “Frankenstein.”
It is this thread that best captures the audience’s attention and links most of the film’s scenes together. Had the movie simply concentrated on her classic novel’s creation, it would have had a better structure, especially since it puts forth a very powerful argument that Mary Shelley derived the book’s melancholy tone and tragedy from her failing relationship with her husband. Sadly, however, we are forced to put up with Percy’s endless inane gallivanting, to the point where it becomes difficult to understand why she loves him in the first place. Some might pass this off as part of the complexity of their relationship, but it suggests another fundamental error in the film: It does not know who its antagonists are. It is clear that Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) and Shelley, with their disdain for others and hedonism masked as freedom, are chiefly to blame for the hell they put Mary through (namely, debt, poor living conditions, heartbreak). The problem with this dark, malevolent portrayal—at least in the case of Shelley—is that it is difficult to understand why Mary keeps returning to him if she spends the first half of the film blaming him for the death of their daughter and the latter half hating him. Pretty boy Douglas Booth plays Shelley as a true nightmare, so much so that it because increasingly hard to trust his qualities—namely idealism—for which he is supposedly redeemable.
It is rare that writers produce their best known works at a young age, but part of Mary Shelley’s fame lies in the fact that she created one of the most famous characters of all time at the tender age of 18. Unlike many renown British female writers who were childless, like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, Shelley was a mother. “Frankenstein” was written between her second and third pregnancies, after the death of her first two babies. Though the movie assigns most of the blame for Mary’s loneliness and feeling of abandonment to Percy, it entirely fails to acknowledge Mary’s constant state of pregnancy and her children’s deaths as a major source of influence on her characters. More than anything, this is emblematic of the film’s desire to cover too much, producing half-explored material. To add to that list of incomplete coverage would be Mary’s relationship with her stepsister Claire (Bel Powley), which is loving but offset by Claire’s jealousy regarding Percy, and the ghost of a tenderness between Mary and supporting character John Polidori (Ben Hardy), a subplot that feels almost carelessly touched upon.
With this year marking the bicentennial of “Frankenstein,” it feels more apt than ever to take a look back at Shelley’s allure: daughter of famous and radical intellectuals and wife to one of the most celebrated poets in history. Mary Shelley was also a tour de force in her own right, retaining a singular status within literature. Yet, the movie disconnects us from these facts. While Mary is a hero, managing to publish her novel against all odds, the film fails to fully capture that and essentially reduces her to the victim of unjust circumstances. She is not the formidable writing force and celebrity we have come to know her as, which is perhaps why the production is ultimately so disappointing.
—Staff writer Aline G. Damas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.