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Mary Shelley

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Daughter to a renowned feminist icon, lover to at least one legendary poet and companion to more, world traveler, mother of modern science fiction and horror, and sometimes tragic heroine of her own epic life – there’s a lot to be said about Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, and the new movie which bears her name tries to say it all. Unfortunately, not to much effect.

Directed by Saudi filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour from a script by Australian writer Emma Jensen, Mary Shelley traces the writer’s life from young adulthood when the then Mary Godwin left her father, William Godwin’s (Stephen Dillane) home, to her first meeting with her paramour, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), a self styled “radical poet” who here entertains notions of class equality while racking up massive debts supporting an extravagant lifestyle.

Decamping for Europe just ahead of his creditors, Percy, Mary and her sister, Claire Claremont (an underused Bel Powley) fetch up at the Geneva manse of Lord Byron (a playful Tom Sturridge, who looks like he should be playing bass for Kirin J. Callinan) where, one rainy day, a ghost story contest is proposed… and we all know what happens then (or you should. Read a bloody book).

The back half of the film deals with Mary’s struggles to get the book published under her own name, which holds some interest – the entrenched misogyny of the time meant that the first edition of Frankenstein was published anonymously with a foreword by Percy, with many believing him the actual author. But even so, the hurdles Mary faces here all seem relatively minor (even the death of her infant child, and it’s kind of amazing that such an event can feel so undramatic).

The whole thing feels rather bloodless, which is some kind of achievement in a film filled with ostensibly lusty Romantics and dealing with the creation of one of the greatest horror novels of all time. The more complex, prickly and potentially problematic aspects of the Shelleys and their contemporaries are largely sanded smooth. Byron still comes across as a douche, but the film can’t even really bring itself to blame Percy for his abandoned first wife’s suicide, really just clearing her out of the way to forward his fated romance with Mary.

The whole thing  feels like a missed opportunity. It’s a remarkably sexless film, which is incredible given that Mary (to be fair, apocryphally) shagged Percy on her mother’s headstone. Any suggestions of homosexuality are faint enough to be nigh-invisible – we just get Percy and Byron retiring to the drawing room, nudge nudge wink wink, from time to time. At least loony old Ken Russell’s Gothic fucks.

For all that, even a by the numbers biopic would not be without its charms, but al-Mansour makes some bafflingly bad staging choices that drastically undercut several key moments. The most unforgivable is a climactic intimate, passionate, private conversation between the Shelleys that is rendered quite absurd when you realise that just out of frame are a dozen or so stuffy, middle-aged literature fans waiting to discuss Frankenstein who are probably getting quite embarrassed by the couple’s overheated tête-à-tête.

Mary Shelley isn’t a disaster, but it is a disappointment. There’s a good movie to be made about the life of the literary giant, but we haven’t seen it yet.

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The Limehouse Golem

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It’s foggy old London town, circa 1880, and Theft and Fraud detective Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) has been put on the case of The Limehouse Golem, a vicious serial murderer – mainly because Scotland Yard thinks they’ll need a handy scapegoat when they fail to apprehend the killer. The fasdidious, reserved Kildare has a number one suspect in journalist-turned-playwright John Cree (Sam Reid), but Cree is already dead – and his wife, actress Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke), is on trial for his murder. Can Kildare find evidence that Cree is the culprit in time to save Elizabeth from the hangman’s noose?

Peter Ackroyd’s source novel, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, sounds like an absolute blast of a literary romp, but its translation to the screen has left it a somewhat misshapen and rough beast. The film, directed by Juan Carlos Medina (Painless) and adapted for the screen by Jane Goldman (Kingsman, The Woman in Black) suffers from serious pacing problems and an odd structure that works best when the ostensible main thrust of the plot – Kildare’s investigation – is sidelined in favour of extensive flashbacks that fill out Elizabeth’s background.

It’s here that the film really comes alive, portraying in often shocking detail the travails of a capable woman in the stews of Victorian England. We see Lizzie, as she’s known, lift herself up out of a childhood of extreme poverty and abuse, finding a home and a family of sorts in London’s music halls, colleague and friend to lauded comedian Dan Leno (Douglas Booth). We also see how she is used and mistreated by those around her, eventually trapped in a loveless marriage with the ambitious Cree. At its heart, this is a story about a woman taking what power she can in a society that robs her of almost every opportunity, and these sequences are easily the most interesting of the film.

It’s not as grim as all that, though. The Limehouse Golem‘s depictions of Victorian backstage life are wonderfully bold, bawdy and colourful, and the arc of Lizzie’s life is fascinating enough without the necessity of the murder plot the film is shackled to. Why would we want to spend time with the dour Kildare when we could be drinking with the misfits and might-have-beens that surround Lizzie and Dan? Of course, even such an entertaining milieu holds hidden dangers, and Lizzie finds that even those she trusts the most don’t necessarily have her best interests at heart.

Tonally the film is up and down, jumping from melodrama to historical feminist text to grand guignol slaughter-rama without even blinking, which can lead to some shocking moments if you’re not inured to lashings of onscreen claret – and even if you are. We also get a few historical personages cropping up in supporting roles, which might work better on the page than on the screen – after all, it’s one thing for a character to wonder if, say, Karl Marx might have something to do with the murders; it’s quite another to have a fantasy sequence in which the nemesis of the bourgeoisie is grimly sawing off a victim’s head, his prodigious beard flecked with fresh blood.

There’s a lot to enjoy in The Limehouse Golem. Cooke, recently seen in the risible Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, gives a great performance as Elizabeth, allowing us to see the pain, need, and guardedness beneath her extroverted stage persona, and switching it up even further as the plot demands. The whole thing is beautifully shot, and although sometimes the production budget isn’t quite up to the demands of the period setting, the whole thing has an enjoyable Backlot Gothic feel to it. Ultimately, the central enigma isn’t up to much – if you don’t guess it ahead of our intrepid copper, you’ll be ashamed to admit it – but it’s still the best 19th century feminist backstage drama/murder mystery you’ll see this year.

Click here for nationwide movie times for The Limehouse Golem