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.