“There is something at work in my soul
which I do not understand.”
-Mary Shelley, “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”
And with that quote, so begins “Mary Shelley,” the fascinating behind-the-scenes story of how Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin came to write and publish the groundbreaking novel, “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.”
You’re going to hear that “Mary Shelley” is a love story. It’s not. You’re going to hear that “Mary Shelley” is a “coming of age” story. It’s not. “Mary Shelley” is an origin story: an origin story of one of the greatest monsters ever committed to the written page and as a result, it’s the origin story of a literary (and cinematic) genre that persists to this day.
“Mary Shelley” is one more thing as well. Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia (in her second directorial outing), with an original screenplay by Emma Jensen (with additional writing by al-Mansour), “Mary Shelley” is an uber-girl power movie with the important message that a woman need not be reliant on a man to validate her worth and abilities. It seems almost inconceivable (sorry, I just re-watched “Princess Bride” recently) that such a message would still be so urgently needed but in 2017, only 8% of the top 100 grossing films of the year were directed by women, only 10% of the top 100 grossing films were written by women and only 24% of the top 100 films featured females as the protagonists. So, yeah, we’ve still got some work to do and “Mary Shelley” is a great step in the right direction.
This is not a “chick flick.” If you’re a fan of the monster genre, I highly recommend you see this movie – you owe it to yourself to see how a creative mind brings their work to life.
Short Synopsis (Spoilers Ahead):
Set in the early 1800s, 16-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning) carries the weight of the legacy of her parent’s radical and feminist thought, while also dealing with her own inner desires to be something the world hasn’t seen before. With a penchant for ghost stories and the macabre, Mary is very much a child of the Gothic and Romanticism movements of her time but without ever accepting the ceiling placed upon her simply as a result of her gender. After clashing with her wicked stepmother (Joanne Froggatt), Mary moves to Scotland, where she meets and falls in love with the Romantics poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth). The two begin a romance, despite a significant age difference (he’s 21), and even after Mary learns that Percy is both married and has a child, she throws in with him and their love. Their chaotic life reaches a head when they spend a summer in Geneva, at the palatial estate of Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge). A unapologetic hedonist, Byron lives a life of drinking, debauchery and sex with Percy and Claire while Mary grows close to the only viable adult in the bunch, Dr. John Polidori (Ben Hardy).
After a night trapped inside due to a storm, Byron suggests a game in which they all write their very best ghost story. Blending her life experiences with her unmatched intellect and imagination, the words of “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” take shape before our eyes. Knowing she has a solid piece of literature, Mary battles the patriarchy of the 1800s publishing industry, eventually having to swallow the indignity of having Frankenstein published anonymously in order to get it printed. When the book is an immediate hit, Mr. Godwin and a repentant Percy work together to bring to light the fact that Mary was the author all along and her name is finally publicly attached to the work.
As the eponymous Mary, Elle Fanning has her first adult, breakout-star performance. I’ve yet to meet someone that doesn’t love Ms. Fanning’s work, but as Mary, she brings a nuanced and complicated blend of maturity, intelligence and gravitas mixed flawlessly with innocence and innocence lost. She carries the weight of this film and its successes on her shoulders, breathing ample life into Jensen’s script. From the opening sounds of the movie, while the production cards are rolling, we hear furious scribbling and heavy breathing while a girl’s voice mumbles words – without a line being uttered, Elle Fanning has already conveyed to us that Mary has a frenetic brain, the type of mind that never is at rest; you’re instantly drawn into wanting to know more about her. Her facial expressions, and in particular her eyes, convey Mary’s journey over the course of this film, from suffocated step-daughter with an unbridled imagination to jaded writer standing as an adult among her peers who are trapped in emotional adolescence.
When Mary rails against those that would not take her seriously simply for being a woman writing about things a woman shouldn’t write about, Fanning completely sells the feeling of having had enough. Nor does she surrender her will to Percy as so many romantic dramas would have her do. This is a fiercely independent woman who knows who she is and knows what she wants to say and stays true to herself when really, it would have been so much easier to wallow in the hedonism of the age. In the press notes, a point was made to cast a young actress for this role to bring authenticity to the character which could have been a disaster but in Fanning, al-Mansour has found an actress to bring her vision to life.
As Percy Shelley, Douglas Booth dances the line of silver-tongue, pretty boy poet and roguish womanizer. Though, womanizer is the wrong appellation. The character of Shelley, as written and portrayed here, is one of privilege and emotional immaturity. Booth sells you convincingly that Percy wants to be in love with Mary, but in fact can never be anything more than in love with whatever is new and exciting. He freely admits to Mary that he wishes to live a life of always a new lover, always a new fun experience and takes no responsibility for his actions or the devastation and chaos he leaves in his wake. Its only at the end of the film that we see emotional growth and nuance and I credit Booth for conveying the change, but by this point, Percy is too far gone for me as a character to do anything other than yell at the screen for Mary to “move on, you can do better!”
As Claire Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister, Bel Powley is the most grating character in this film. Which, I think is the point. Both being 16, Mary and Claire are dark mirrors of each other: Mary so self-possessed and confident in what she is and what she knows, and Claire, always with the FOMO, always wanting what Mary has, always looking to attach herself to someone’s wagon, desperate validation that never comes. Powley portrays Claire’s desperation with conviction and is fully committed to conveying Claire’s scheming machinations, mostly sexual in nature. Claire is positioned as Mary’s best friend, but really is probably the biggest betrayer of Mary in the film, and I found myself openly loathing her. Her betrayals mixed in with her base desperation left me just wanting her to be off the screen.
I give a lot of credit to Powley for invoking that kind of reaction; it’s easy to see how she could have played her character in such a way as to be utterly forgettable but you never forget Claire – you just wish she would be less horrible and whiny. This is the perfect summation of my feeling on Claire: at the end of the film, Claire tells Mary that the monster’s feeling of abandonment and loneliness is Claire’s feeling and she wonders how many others will identify with that feeling. It’s a GREAT line full of truth, one of my favorites in the film. But, all I could think was, “Gah, it’s not all about you, Claire!!! Shush!”
Tom Sturridge’s turn as Lord Byron is exquisite and, after Fanning and Hardy, I think he is one of the best things about this film. In the Frankenstein origin myth, the time spent at Lord Byron’s estate in Geneva is THE single most important catalyst, so it’s natural to expect Lord Byron would play a pivotal role in the story; however, Byron’s unapologetic hedonistic lifestyle is refreshing in all the ways that Percy Shelley’s same lifestyle is not. The difference? Percy wraps his debauchery in languages of love and poetry and elevated feelings which are really just avenues of emotional manipulation. Byron? He just wants to drink and have sex and enjoy his life. He doesn’t make promises and he doesn’t offer the moon and stars in exchange for stolen kisses. No, he just exists and you know that going in. Unless you’re Claire and you’re trying to make a love mountain out of a one-night-stand mole hill. Sturridge’s performance is cocky and self-sure – he plays Byron as the full sexually weaponized counterpart to Fanning’s intellectually and imaginatively weaponized Mary, and some of my favorite moments in this film are when the two of them are interacting. I would watch a spin-off film with Sturridge as Byron tomorrow – someone please make this movie because there is a great story to be told here.
I am going to mention Maisie Williams only because she is so highly-billed in this film but honestly, she is on screen for 10 minutes and Isabel Baxter’s contribution to the story is entirely forgettable. I imagine there is a version of the script in which she had a lot to do, but in this final version, Isabel is filler and adds nothing to Mary’s arc or the narrative story, which I am very disappointed about – Ms. Williams is a force of nature, as anyone who has seen her on “Game of Thrones” or even her turn on “Doctor Who” will readily attest to. I want to see the film where we finally get to see Maisie unleashed but “Mary Shelley,” as it turns out, is not it.
Last shouts out are to Ben Hardy, as John Polidori, and Joanne Froggatt, as the wicked stepmom, Mary Jane Clairmont. Polidori and Mary are the love story you want to see, intellectual equals of similar disposition and interest – a road never taken but one I would be very interested to see explored. Hardy easily sells us on Polidori’s sincerity and earnestness; other than Mary, he’s the only other functioning adult in the room and Hardy’s performance is a refreshing palate cleanser after so much chaos. Froggatt plays the new Mrs. Godwin, Mary’s step mother who is beyond concerned with cementing her (and her biological children’s) position as the new Godwins, and she treats Mary with an abject disgust – a reminder of Mr. Godwin’s prior life that Mary Jane would rather be stamped out from all of history. It’s easy to imagine Froggatt wading into Disney levels of “wicked stepmother” tropes, but as Mary Jane Clairmont, Froggatt brings a delicious wickedness to the role that, even while you dislike her actions, you kind of also smile at how nasty she is. I always root for the nuanced character that comes across against type.
“Mary Shelley” is rated PG-13 (there are some very suggestive sexual interactions, though no nudity). It is available on VOD now! It was produced by Amy Baer, Alan Moloney, Ruth Coady and distributed by IFC Films.
Featured image credit: IFC Films