Like a crudely misshapen bell, Mary Shelley is a film that only occasionally rings true. Written and produced to be screened to students on the last day of term, this is a morosely uninteresting biopic of a fascinating ghost of literature.
Haifaa al-Mansour surely found herself to have much in common with the young Mary Godwin. Both daughters of renowned intellectuals, both pioneers in the role of women in culture and both contemporarily controversial figures amid an austere society. Whereas al-Mansour has so far sailed evocative and intriguing waters, her first mainstream feature is more cruiser than buccaneer.
Godwin – Mary Shelley being an ironic title for a film that predominantly predates her marriage and explores her independence – was a contemporary of Jane Austin but of a wholly different character and with a startlingly polarised pen. Whilst the latter parodied the gothic, the former revelled in it. It seems peculiar, then, to find a biopic of the woman who wrote Frankenstein be presented as though she had lived the life of her counterpart. As written by Emma Jensen, Mary Shelley is a highly mannered film that checks off a biopic cliche with every new chapter of its subject’s life.
Opening some years after the death of her mother, the film charts Mary’s (Elle Fanning) teenage life, predominantly through her relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelly (Douglas Booth). The pair sense an instant attraction, wound tighter by their radical ideals. Following a requisite romance sequence (is it raining?) and awkwardly allegorical kiss beneath a statue of the Virgin Mary, it is not long before the young wordsmiths run away together, along with Mary’s stepsister Claire (a spirited, young-looking Bel Powley), to have a child, write and amass hefty debts.
Were it not for a certain trip to Switzerland an hour into the film, al-Mansour’s soapier leanings might have been left entirely irredeemable. Fanning is dispiritingly bland as Mary, reading dialogue with priggish elocution and a dearth of passion. Booth, meanwhile, is required merely to quote and look chiseled. Both can do better; have done better even. As it is, Tom Sturridge’s arrival as Lord Byron – a glam rocking, curly haired fopp, with a cruelly free tongue – brings some much needed galvanisation to the dreary tale: ‘I’m sorry, have I caused a scene?’ Sturridge is a fabulously lively presence here and among the few to feel true to the actual figure of history. Byron’s treatment of Claire, and her tormented emotional response, make for far more interesting viewing that the bottom lip of a subdued Mary. It is in Byron’s scenes of verbal debauchery that the competition is heralded which will lead the teenage Mary to write her magnus opus but it’s a long time coming.
By contrast, Mary Shelley is neither al Mansour nor Jensen’s magnus opus. The infamous dream that allegedly inspired the writing of Frankenstein is too am-dram to be taken seriously, Mary’s introduction to the science of galvanisation is botched and there are scenes here not worthy of the talent on screen or off. Later sparks – such as Mary’s withering response to the publisher who proposes that she did not write the book – hint at a more powerful film that is lost in winsome period procedure. A pity.
Like its protagonist, Mary Shelley burns with the rage of gender inequality and is potent with compelling potential to tell an abrasive tale. That this is suppressed is infuriating.