Film Review: ‘Mary Shelley’
Recalls with earnestness and urgency the fascinating life of a towering figure
Writer of the most influential science fiction novel of all time, Mary Wollstencraft Godwin Shelley lived a torrid life. Straddling poverty, she shacked up with poet Percy Shelley when he was 21 (she was 16) and married with a child. They ran away together to live the bohemian life in the 1800s, long before anyone had ever thought of beatniks, hippies or hipsters. While in Lord Byron’s elegant retreat in Geneva, surrounded by woods and kept inside by a torrential, weeks-long downpour, Shelley conceived of the idea for Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley is an upcoming film directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour and scripted by Emma Jensen, which deals with that unconventional relationship and how its dramas led to the writing of the book. Jensen’s script provides a comprehensive look at the author’s life during her young adult years, weaving in themes of gender inequality and the right to free love, that feel distinctly emphasised to resonate with modern cultural debates.
Elle Fanning plays the young novelist. Fanning’s talents can be best seen in roles that require stillness and silence. She’s on her way to mastering the art of the pose, best utilised in artfully stylish movies like The Neon Demon (2016) and The Beguiled (2017). Her acting style is intelligent and patient, kind of an odd fit for the fiery Mary Shelley.
Daughter to Mary Wollstencraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Shelley no doubt picked up her mother’s rebellious spirit and desire for something Percy Shelley (here played by Douglas Booth) might’ve called sublime. The movie emphasises this by showing Mary looking mournfully at her mother’s picture and pushing back when men like Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) belittle her.
In Mary Shelley’s life there was an infant death, a scandal, no recognition for her work on Frankenstein, and tragically early deaths from friends and partners all around her. This is all in the movie, though it’s curiously understated approach, never dwelling long on tragedy or using one set piece with which to anchor the film, doesn’t quite reflect the life it’s trying to depict. Still an earnest and necessary cinematic retelling of a towering figure in all artforms, Mary Shelley is admirable, and will hopefully reinstate audience’s interests in its subject.
Tom Bensley is a freelance writer in Melbourne who reviews anything he attends, watches or reads. It’s a compulsion, really. Follow him @TomAliceBensley.
Mary Shelley will be released in cinemas 5 July.