This serviceable dramatisation of the life of author Mary Shelley (Elle Fanning) satisfies as much as it disappoints. Feeling a bit like a made-for-TV movie, director Haifaa al-Mansour (Wadjda) paints by numbers, giving us a long succession of plot points with a good dose of high emotion but little drama.
We first see Shelley as a sixteen- year-old, the daughter of well-known and respected writers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Her mother died as a result of her birth and she has been raised in genteel poverty with an impatient stepmother, Mary (Joanne Froggatt), and beloved stepsister Claire (Bel Powley).
As the film would have us believe, Mary is sent to Scotland to remove her from her fractious relationship with her stepmother. At a dinner for well-off literary lovers and emerging writers, she meets Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), a promising poet who has enough social standing and inherited wealth to allow him to do as he pleases. Intrigued, it seems, by Mary’s fiesty nature and literary pedigree (and perhaps also by her guileless youth and romantic inclinations), he follows her back to London under the guise of seeking the mentorship of her father. Before long they run away together, even though Percy is already married and has a child, and they take a desperately bored Claire with them.
The most notable thing about Mary Shelley, for most people, is that she wrote the genre-changing and influential Romantic-era novel Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus when she was in her late teens. This film takes a long time to set the framework for the generation of this work. It builds a picture of Mary as ill-treated, isolated and at odds with the hedonistic lifestyle that Percy and Claire embrace. We see the powerlessness of Mary as she takes second place to Percy’s whims and also of Claire as she is mistreated by Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge).
Although affecting enough, the characterisations feel a bit cliched and under-drawn; Percy comes across as handsome and charismatic but not really a good bloke, Mary is a bit of a drag and a martyr, and Claire is a fool. The point, I think, is to spell out that the creation of Mary’s novel was largely inspired by her and her sister’s dreadful experiences as women but this is done with a heavy hand. We even see a montage of all the salient moments as Mary writes the novel, to ensure it is patently obvious and just in case we don’t get it.
The narrative stumbles from plot point to plot point, leaving not enough space to really know the characters or believe their motivations. Fanning and Booth do a good enough job and Powley is immensely watchable as the hapless Claire. Ultimately, I didn’t really believe the story I was being sold and a little Internet searching afterwards revealed an expected but disappointing looseness with many facts. Where, for example, was Mary’s older half-sister Fanny, her mother’s first and illegitimate daughter? What of Shelley and his first wife Harriet’s other child?
A simplification, of course, is often needed to fit all the good bits into two hours but I couldn’t help feeling that less time could have been spent on the trials and tribulations of the romances, affairs and betrayals and more time on Mary’s character and creative spirit. It seems overly simplistic to correlate her tempestuous romance and sudden adulthood with her literary achievements.
There are a few editing oddities, nowhere more noticeable than the small fragment of a post-epilogue scene. It makes me wonder at the cultural differences between al-Mansour’s experience as a director in Saudi Arabia and our expectations of Western narratives.