There’s an imaginative, hugely entertaining movie to be made out of that fated rainy summer day in Geneva that spawned some of the most pivotal horror novels in history. Mary Shelley is not that movie.
The lumbering biopic follows the 16-year-old Mary Shelley, played like a willowy naif by Elle Fanning, as she is sent off to Scotland after the tension between her and her stepmother comes to a head. There, she meets the love of her life, Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), a gifted and radical poet. When their brief flirtation is cut short after she is suddenly called back home to London, Percy seeks the tutelage of her father, the philosopher William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), half as an excuse to spend more time with Mary. Mary Shelley is solely interested in the whirlwind romance between Mary and Percy, and their self-inflicted downfall as Percy leaves his wife and child to be with Mary, and the two of them live a life of debauchery and constant debt.
Like many biopics about writers, Mary Shelley seeks to find the person behind the monster, lingering on Mary’s moments of trauma, grief, and loneliness. But we rarely ever see Mary put pen to paper. Instead, the film tediously hones in on Mary’s victimhood, at the hands of Percy, his hedonistic literary friends, or Mary herself. At points, Mary Shelley feels more like a cautionary morality tale than a tribute to one of the greatest Gothic writers in history. I found myself counting down the hours until we got to see that famous scene in Geneva, where Mary would come into her brilliance and hatch the earth-shattering novel that was Frankenstein.
But the little dramatic payoff we get in Mary’s becoming as a writer gets derailed by yet another lurid twist in the endless love triangles of the film. I don’t know how Mary Shelley did it, but it made hedonism seem boring. It may have to do with the pedestrian storytelling or with the fractured editing — certain pivotal moments in Mary’s life happen offscreen, raising the dramatic tension of a incoming punch or steamy sex scene only to cut away to a serene shot of the moon.
Even as the editing is very generous, Mary Shelley still feels meandering. There’s no hint of the vibrant bohemian lives that Mary and her friends lived — except to portray them in a grimly patronizing way — nor of the Gothic stylings that inspired Mary’s writing. The only nod the film makes to Mary’s morbid curiosities is in Mary and Percy’s graveyard meetings — and no, sadly, Mary does not lose her virginity on her mother’s grave as urban myth dictates.
But the few flickers of life in this husk of a movie are the multifaceted performances given by Fanning and Dillane. Fanning offers a solid emotional anchor for the film, though she does sometimes struggle to balance the more overwrought melodrama required of a period piece with the piercing stoicism she has fostered in her indie film career. But Dillane is a standout, offering a somber portrait of an indebted father at the end of his rope, while still managing to offer hints of wisdom and dry humor. Booth also lives up to the task as Fanning’s romantic partner and the source of her later misery. His doll-like good looks serve him well as the morally reprehensible Percy.
The rest of the supporting characters are a mixed bag, however. Bel Powley does her best with the infuriating Claire Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister and the black sheep of their little literary group. While her hysterics could sometimes grate, Claire offered enough complexities to keep things interesting. But Tom Sturridge‘s choice to play Lord Byron as an eyeliner-wearing coked out ’70s rock star is baffling, to say the least. He and Joanne Froggatt‘s antagonistic Mary Jane Clairmont often felt like outright villains plucked out of a Jane Austen novel.
Mary Shelley takes plenty of creative license with the stories of Mary and her cadre of literary friends, picking and choosing the aspects of their lives that offer the most dramatic weight. Unfortunately, those aspects are the most dull, woebegone parts of their lives.
How tragic Mary Shelley’s life must have been to produce such a grotesque, morbid work as Frankenstein, the movie seems to say. How we must feel for her. But the only tragic thing about Mary Shelley is how little we feel for these pale imitations of the truly remarkable real-life writers.
/Film Rating: 5 out of 10
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