Mary Shelley Film Review
Mary Shelley’s a new romantic period drama full of feminism, romance, history, tragedy, as well as the dark side of over-indulged Romanticism. And while the movie doesn’t match the creative genius of Shelley, it’s certainly one of the best biopics to ever grace the screen about the female writer who created a Gothic masterpiece.
The film begins in 18th century London with a young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning) who lives with her famous philosophical father (Stephen Dillane), her stepmother Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggatt) and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley). She dreams of becoming an author and spends much of her time reading and writing – which causes friction with her disagreeable stepmother. This then leads Mary to leave the city to get away for a while.
When she spends time in the country, she soon meets and falls in love with the charming and talented poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). Thus, begins a tumultuous romance of passion and tragedy that transforms Mary into the woman who ultimately writes the literary work of art, Frankenstein.
A Positive Female-Driven Film
Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour (the first female Saudi filmmaker) with a script by Emma Jensen and al-Mansour, there’s quite a bit of positive feminism in the movie. There’s also a level of deep respect shown for Mary Shelley which translates well to the screen.
Now, if you’re not a history buff, you likely don’t know much about the woman behind Frankenstein. So, the film, while not perfectly historically accurate, is a lovely empathic introduction. There’s an essence of Shelley found in this film which I haven’t seen before. I felt I understood Mary, her dark imagination, her emotions and motivations, which shows just how successful the writer, director, and actress were in capturing young Mary.
The Cast and the Characters
Continuing in the tradition of casting American actresses to play British historical figures, Elle Fanning plays the young Mary Shelley. Thankfully, Fanning gets her just right. What I loved about the film was the deep exploration of Mary’s inner psyche. She was just a young girl when she fell in love with Shelley. And in many ways, it was one of the worst things that could have happened to her. And on the other hand, it’s one of the best – since it led to the literary masterpiece of Frankenstein.
Besides Fanning, Douglas Booth plays Percy Shelley and all his unbridled passion with artistic precision. Booth, as an actor, seems drawn to classic adaptations rather than Hollywood Blockbusters and fits period drama to perfection. Percy’s a character you both loathe and love at the same time due to his narcissistic self-destructive behavior and stubborn foolishness. You find yourself torn between telling Mary to run as far away as possible while also sympathizing with his revolutionary spirit on some (very small) level. He’s a bad boy with redeeming qualities.
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Here, we see Shelley abandoning his first wife and child, having implied affairs, gambling, drinking, sometimes living in filth, other times living a raucous lifestyle of excessiveness which then consequently assists in a horrible tragedy. And yet, no doubt, Mary and Percy did love each other.
Still, one watches the film wondering just how anyone could have liked Percy Shelley or Lord Byron. Mad, bad, and dangerous to know a fitting description for more than just Byron. Though al-Mansour certainly portrays Lord Byron in a much worse light than Percy Shelley overall.
Lord Byron is played by Tom Sturridge and captures him in a way that clarifies why John Polidori (who’s also in the film as played by Ben Hardy) based his novel, The Vampyre, on him.
Then there’s Bel Powley as Claire Clairmont. Intelligent and conniving with an envy problem, Clairmont becomes entangled with Lord Byron which leads to unfortunate results. Here, Powley continues to show she’s an actress to watch out for.
As a Period Drama
From gorgeous costumes to beautiful historical settings, cinematography, and believable period dialogue, the film has the quality one expects from a British period drama.
Overall, if you enjoy films like Becoming Jane or Effie Gray, you’ll likely appreciate this romantic period drama. While darker in tone than the above examples, al-Mansour has presented a fascinating film about a mesmerizing woman. And that’s why it’s a definite must-see for fans of period drama as well as classic literature from the Romantic Era.
Content Note: Rated PG-13
Where to Watch: In select theaters (was just released on July 6 in the UK). You can also rent the film on Amazon Video, Google Play, and Youtube.
Have you seen Mary Shelley? Do you agree or disagree with my review? Leave a comment below with your thoughts on the film!
Credit for the Featured image at top: IFC Films
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