There’s no worth in trying to deny that Mary Shelley is an utterly familiar biopic. Much more though in the vein of a Victorian era literary adaptation (think Far From the Madding Crowd) than something as strategic and cold as The Imitation Game, the film boats a stylish eye that aids in not allowing the film to suffer under its inability to break the wheel. The creative team latches onto what makes biopics such engaging and well worn pictures and double down on those aspects to create something vivid, moving and, unfortunately, obvious.
Haifaa al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is a great many things. It’s moody and gray; it’s lush and drowned in fog, elevated by a score that bursts from the screen, engulfing the viewers into a cocoon of atmospheric bliss. Traveling down the bumpy road that is the biopic path, al-Mansour feeds off of that familiarity and unconditional narrative beats but engages us with a tremendous heroine. So intriguing is her story, how uncompromising is she in her desire for happiness and success and radical in her ideologies for the time that it’s a shock and then swift embarrassment to realize that her story hasn’t yet been told.
If all you’d known of the author Mary Shelley (Elle Fanning) prior to this film was her work Frankenstein that might’ve seemed like enough to piece together the psyche of an unflinchingly bright and talented young woman, who suffered at the hands of loss and abandonment. To look further through is to gain context, which the film grants us. Once we learn about her and Percy Shelley’s (Douglas Booth) scandalous love affair, the contemptuous relationship she held with her stepmother and the loss of her mother and child, the conception of Victor Frankenstein’s monster grows increasingly clear. The most objectionable part of her masterpiece was her gender. The publishers believed that readers wouldn’t be able to digest anything so horrid and macabre that was written by a woman. Even her own husband believed that she should grant it a “happy ending.” One where man brings life to an angel, not a monster, simultaneously failing to understand the anguish that bore words to the page and who the monster of the story really was. They wanted “women’s stories” unwilling to realize that Frankenstein and all the man-made horror inflicted on the world is just that and all the more intriguing when from the eyes of a woman.
Written by Emma Jensen, the film is not without its faults. With a tendency to circle the same character conflicts without ever full resolution, the script might’ve benefited by reminding the viewers why we were supposed to be rooting for Mary and Percy’s relationship to survive. Similarly, if they’re to put so much emphasis on his conviction in free love, it might’ve done his character better to mention his other humanitarian concerns when he’s preaching his ideals regarding open love and relationships. It’s difficult not to believe that he was taking advantage of a younger, impressionable Mary. Perhaps, ultimately, he was, but we would’ve gotten a stronger sense of this had the film no so critically spent so much time on their relationship drama. The film is clever by not trying to cover too much of the authors life so as not to spread it too thin but it certainly could’ve given Mary more time to develop separate from her romantic entanglements. She’s such an extraordinary and fascinating figure that doing anything but cuts close to being a disservice.
Fanning as the titular author brings the doe eyed sense of wonder that we’ve come to know her for but now with an edge and steely resolve. Perpetually curious, observant and passionate, Fanning gives her the right amount of hard fought for ambition and vulnerable youthfulness. Tom Sturridge delivers a memorable turn as Lord Byron while Bel Powley fully commits to the frustrating nature of Mary’s step-sister Claire. Douglas Booth gives his best performance of his career as Percy, he and Fanning striking up a pitch perfect chemistry that the foundation of the films main relationship is built on.
However, beyond the subject, it’s the craft involved behind the scenes that makes the film as captivating as it is. Shamelessly digging into the opulence that can come with partaking in costume dramas, the designs are stark against the greens of Scotland; Mary’s high blue and orange collars bring a focus in a small, dreary English town. From the score by Amelia Warner that pitches itself to the grassy hills and cloudy skies, a score that matches the emotional volatility of its characters, to the cinematography by David Ungaro, the film is determined in creating something larger than life, something that matches the words on Shelley’s pages.
Director al-Mansour has already proven herself a deft storyteller when it comes to coming of age stories about girls stuck in oppressive environments with the excellent Wadjda and Mary Shelley further proves the point. Her affection for the character and respect she has for her talent shines through. The faults in the script are unfortunate but the attention to detail such as Mary and Percy’s persistently ink stained fingertips, to the focus on women’s liberation in art, the soulful score that wishes to inspire as much magic as one of Mary’s prose, are more than enough to make a poignant and inspiring piece of filmmaking. It may not on the whole touch the greatest of its subject, but the moments that do are beautiful.
This is a reprint from the 2017 Toronto Film Festival.