Mary Shelley – Film Review

Mary Shelley – Film Review by Frank L.

Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Writers: Emma Jensen, Haifaa Al-Mansour (additional writing by)
Stars: Elle Fanning, Maisie Williams, Douglas Booth
Mary Shelley was born Mary Godwin (Elle Fanning) and was the daughter of the famous early feminist Mary Woolstonecroft, who died in giving birth to her. Her father William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), the political philospher and a bookshop owner, remarried and his new stepdaughter Claire Clermont (Bel Powley) was of a similar age to Mary. Percy Byshhe Shelley (Douglas Booth), the soon to be famous poet, was a follower of Godwin’s theories and was married with a young wife and child. That did not inhibit him from falling in love with Mary who became pregnant. The resultant child died not long after birth. Theirs was a free wheeling society where the restrictive mores as regards relationships between the sexes were observed more in the breach than in the observance.

Al-Mansour was brought up in Saudia Arabia where her father is a poet. He introduced her to films via video as there were no cinemas in Saudia Arabia. She studied film in Cairo. She has made several acclaimed shorts and her feature debut, Wadjda, which she also wrote was the first full length feature film made in Saudi Arabia. In the film Al-Mansour restricts herself to a relatively short period in Mary’s life from just before her meeting Shelley until the publication of her masterpiece Frankenstein and the various vicissitudes she endured during those three years.

The life of Mary in that period was out of the ordinary. The multiple references that influenced Mary in her creation of “Frankenstein” are alluded to by Al-Mansour as is the resultant writing of it. The fact that it was published initially anonymously gave the impression that Shelley had written it. Al-Mansour, given her own difficulties that she has had to surmount as a filmmaker emphasises the challenges which Mary endured. She tells the story with empathy as a fellow traveller along a similar path.

Fanning is entirely at one with the character of Mary and is particularly impressive as Mary tries to hold her life together after the death of her child. As Shelley, Booth’s fine looks make him entirely credible as a young man who has no difficulty in getting his way with a young woman but he also had to convey that he was a man of substantial intellect and searching mind. However, in his confrontations with Mary about marriage, he was not always convincing in relation to his dismissal of it as an institution. These two extraordinary literary figures in domestic imbalance may not be possible to convey completely in a film which of necessity is limited in duration.

The story takes place primarily in London but many of the street scenes, which appear mostly to have been recreated on a set, are reminiscent of a Christmas card without the snow; they engender a somewhat nostalgic ambiance of looking backwards while the Shelleys’ lives were at the cutting edge of new ideas.

1818 was the year in which Frankenstein was first published. It is entirely appropriate in this bicentenary that a film is made to celebrate its creation, author and publication. Al-Mansour leaves you in no doubt as to Mary’s great achievement and has created a film that is eminently watchable but there seems to be a missing ingredient, difficult to define, that would have made it memorable.


Categories: Header, Movie Review, Movies

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