‘Mary Shelley’ tells the story of how a young woman found the voice she needed to write one of the greatest English novels of all time – ‘Frankenstein’. The aspiring writer had to come out from not only the shadow of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the game-changing ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, and father, renowned philosopher William Godwin, but also that of her husband, the poet Percy Shelley. ‘Mary Shelley’ follows the romantic relationship between her and Shelley and the challenges she faced as a result of their scandalous affair.
For female audiences (which period dramas are primarily targeted at), there is much to like in this biopic. Like other BFI films such as ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Belle’, the design is beautiful with careful investment placed into creating a picturesque costume and production design. Its leads in Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth (‘Jupiter Ascending’) are gorgeous to look at, the chemistry between them sizzling.
Acting wise, Fanning, who was a wonder in last year’s ‘The Beguiled’, though even she couldn’t save this year’s ‘How To Talk To Girls at Parties’, proves an ever-growing talent, though she does get scenes stolen from her by Bell Powley. Powley, who plays Mary’s sister, Claire, previously gave a great performance as Princess Margaret in the otherwise mediocre ‘A Royal Night Out’, and no doubt her name will be popping up more in years to come. A final performance worth mentioning (‘Game of Thrones’ fans will likely notice Maisie Williams’ name in the billing, but really her role is very small) is that of Tom Sturridge (‘Far from the Maddening Crowd’) as Lord Byron. Sturridge is so dramatic, zealous and cartoonish in his performance that he will likely inspire a love or hate response from audiences. This reviewer falls into the latter category.
‘Mary Shelley’ moves along briskly enough and is well-written, and yet there is something unnerving about it that is hard to put one’s finger on. While films based on true stories typically take some artistic license, be it for stylistic and/or pacing purposes, certain events of ‘Mary Shelley’ are beyond belief and cast a shadow on its credibility overall as a result (Indeed, some scholars have already come out against the film due to its inaccuracies). Moreover, as much as the film emphasises women’s struggles in a world ruled by men, and delivers an uplifting final message that women can overcome hardship and misery to succeed, it can feel like it is using these feminist times as a selling point. While it would seem to be on its way to being an anti-love story, as Mary and Percy’s relationship increasingly degenerates while the storyline refocuses on the journey the author takes to write her masterpiece, the finale involves having one’s cake and eating it too. Here’s hoping that in the future, the story of Mary Shelley will be brought to the big screen again in a more ambitious and faithful way.