Directed by groundbreaking Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour, Mary Shelley details the author’s relationship with the poet Percy Shelley and the events that eventually lead to her writing her seminal novel. It’s a beautifully shot film exploring a truly fascinating story, but Mary Shelley never really becomes as moving or as captivating as it should be. It’s a shallow look at an incredible life, and it will ultimately leave audiences searching for a more emotional and resonant recounting of the author’s story.
Mary (Elle Fanning) is a wayward teen spending more time reading scary literature than helping out with chores back at home. She clashes with stepmother Mary Jane (Joanne Froggatt) but shares a warm relationship with stepsister Claire (Bel Powley) and father William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), a renowned political philosopher and novelist. She also shares a strident streak with her late mother, the forward-thinking feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. When Mary encounters handsome and rebellious poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), her life takes a dramatic turn that takes her across Europe, encountering love, betrayal, tragedy and, ultimately, inspiration.
The film breezes through fights, poetically-charged reconciliations, and Mary’s well grounded suspicions that Shelley and Claire are becoming an item. The couple loses a child shortly after birth, and Claire soon thereafter winds up pregnant by the mad, bad, and dangerous to know poet Lord Byron (played by a scenery-chewing Tom Sturridge as some combination of debauched ‘70s rock star and telenovela villain). This occasions a trip to Byron’s estate in Geneva, where amid marathon drinking sessions Byron makes his famous rainy-night challenge to his guests to each write a ghost story. Drawing on her feelings of abandonment and general disgust with the men in her life, Mary gives birth to Frankenstein’s monster. It’s here, and in Mary’s subsquent struggle to get the novel published with proper credit, that the film finally finds its center.
There are some annoying historical anomalies in the dialogue (“I have no problem with that,” “I’m waiting to reach out,” “We’ll meet amazing people”), but they are glitches; most of the film’s lines ring truer to the period. As horns lock between Mary and the increasingly dissolute Percy, she comes to a sober realization of the cruelty of men and the conseqences of her mistakes. Yet still she can look him in the eye and say, “My choices made me who I am. I regret nothing.”
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