The tale of how a ghost story competition staged to while away a rainy Lake Geneva day and led to the birth of modern horror and science fiction has been told on screen before. Weirdly, we got a cluster of films about the events that led to the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and John Polidori’s The Vampyre in the mid-’80s: Ken Russell’s delightfully lurid Gothic in ’86, and Haunted Summer – which saw Eric Stoltz as Percy Shelley! – and Rowing With the Wind – Hugh Grant is Lord Byron! – in ’88. But ’80s nostalgia seemingly only extends to action figures and cartoons, so the culture is primed for a fresh take on one of the most important dirty weekends in literary history. Thus, Mary Shelley, the new film from Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour (Wadjda), written by Australian Emma Jensen.
As the official release rather breathlessly tells us, “She will forever be remembered as the writer who gave the world Frankenstein. But the real life story of Mary Shelley—and the creation of her immortal monster—is nearly as fantastical as her fiction. Raised by a renowned philosopher father (Stephen Dillane) in 18th-century London, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning) is a teenage dreamer determined to make her mark on the world when she meets the dashing and brilliant poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). So begins a torrid, bohemian love affair marked by both passion and personal tragedy that will transform Mary and fuel the writing of her Gothic masterwork. Imbued with the imaginative spirit of its heroine, Mary Shelley brings to life the world of a trailblazing woman who defied convention and channelled her innermost demons into a legend for the ages.”
A quick riff through her Wikipedia entry will show just how straight up bananas Mary Shelley’s life was, dogged by the sort of tragedy and ironic resonance that would seem over the top if it was presented as fiction (and that’s a risk these sorts of films always run, really). Framing events specifically from Shelley’s POV is a smart choice – in previous versions of the story she’s largely been one of the ensemble, with the (all male – funny that) directors keeping the focus on mad, bad Byron and the boys. In this take, rampaging Romantics look like the pack of insufferable broet douchebags they almost certainly were – Tom Sturridge’s Byron looks particularly punchable. Plus, it’s hard to imagine a more numinous time to be releasing a film about a hugely talented woman struggling to get out of the shadow of her entitlement-addled male peers – the iron, as they say, is hot.
Mary Shelley hits Australian cinemas on July 26.