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Haifaa al-Mansour’s biopic Mary Shelley is a decadent romance starring Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth.
To perpetuate a dying distinction, someone once made it clear to me that ‘romantic’ meant a candlelit dinner while ‘Romantic’ meant a date in a graveyard. Anyone in need of defending the capital R distinction will soon have a new point of reference when Haifaa al-Mansour’s film, Mary Shelley, hits wide release after it’s Tribeca premiere.
Based on the life of the author whose big hit, Frankenstein, essentially created the genre of horror, the new biopic is the film’s biggest contribution to Romanticism in at least the past decade. But, never mutually exclusive, the film shows itself to be romantic as well, delivering us an earnestly dramatic love story the likes of which has also been sorely missed in cinema for the past few years. On top of all this, it happens to be a damn good exploration, played by the fantastic Elle Fanning, of a woman who was destined to become one of history’s ill-remembered ‘strong female characters.’
Decadent love stories seem to be exploring their sexuality since Nicolas Sparks adaptations began fading into obscurity in the late aughts. The most outstanding spectacles of heartthrob this decade have surely been Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), Carol (2015), and Call Me by Your Name (2017). Mary Shelley, by contrast, is styled as a throwback – with emotional antics inspired by early-2000s period pieces like
Mary Shelley, by contrast, is styled as a throwback – with emotional antics inspired by early-2000s period pieces like The Duchess (2008) or Marie Antoinette (2006). But don’t be fooled into believing any formula fits this film. Mary Shelley’s life has survived several centuries of salacious gossip before being memorialized here, largely due to the well-known fact that she eloped, had a child, and wrote one of the most important literary contributions of the 20th century all by the age of eighteen.
Who better to play her than the equally young, nearly-as-pale Elle Fanning, who has been rocketing up to the A-list this past year and, I believe, delivered a performance here well worth her admission. Alongside her is Douglas Booth, an equally gorgeous young actor who really magnifies this film’s turn-of-the-millennium aesthetic with his spot-on impression of a young Johnny Depp.
Booth plays Percy Bysshe Shelley, the famously radical poet who gave Mary her last name and first child. He was the famous one, for their time. For viewers who know of Mary Shelley through her work, and think they are walking into a standard biopic, watching her creation of one of the most influential short novels ever only to have it eclipsed by her melodramatic love life could almost be too much to bear. But you can’t deny that it’s sumptuous fun.
Shelley’s imploding love life offers a differnet reading of her novel – one which sheds new light on her self-absorbed doctor and the monster he feels he must control.
The crafting of Frankenstein does happen, eventually. And anyone who can put aside a classical sense of the artistic process will note that the story itself could not have been crafted without the scandalous love stuff. More than anything, the film delivers on its promise to be a study of her character, which Fanning provides with a measured distance.
Mary Shelley was born Mary Godwin, the child of two intellectuals (her mother, the famous proto-Feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, died just after giving birth to her), and seemingly the child of abandonment. She is first seen, quite Romantically, journaling next to Wollstonecraft’s mossy sepulcher, before running home to the supper bell. Her father, William Godwin (Stephen Dillane) is far too busy eking a meager living off book sales, and her step-mother resents her. She has a step-sister, Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley) who is an earnest best friend, but for the most part, Mary spends her time brooding about her culturally significant lot in life.
She first meets Shelley on a trip to Scotland, where the two begin a rapturous flirtation in the home of a mutual friend until Mary is abruptly called back to London. Not long after, Shelley comes to see her, offering his time and a seemingly large inheritance to study under her father’s literary mentorship. The candlelit encounters in the Godwin home seem to offer us nothing but a guilty pleasure until Mary has one of the melodrama’s fated chance encounters with a woman and child in the street. The woman’s name is Harriet, and she is Shelley’s wife.
Shelley’s philandering has been documented fact for the past two-hundred years, but the revelation still strikes a blow and sends the film – on the brink of consummating its place in the annals of period romance – hurtling out of the genre. What we get instead is something far more nuanced, and it feels right only because we are so trustingly bonded to Mary’s melancholic life. Fearing abandonment yet again, she binds herself to Shelley, and the two elope against Godwin’s wishes, the start of a long period of running away from spouses, parents, and debt collectors. They eventually go so far as to collide with Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), Shelley’s counterpart in ego and imagery, who invites the young couple to stay with him in an Austrian mansion. In the process of all this, Mary loses her child in infancy, and Shelley’s proximity with her stepsister Claire opens up the possibility of adultery yet again.
More than anything, the film delivers on its promise to be a study of Shelley’s character, which Fanning provides with a measured distance.
It is with the luxurious Lord Byron that the group, emotionally conflicted and cooped up due to rain, has the idea to write a ghost story in twenty-four hours. This is the impetus of Frankenstein, but, as Shelley’s relationship is already on the brink of implosion, an alternate reading of the story is proffered to us – one which sheds new light on her self-absorbed doctor and the monster he feels he must control. Mary Shelley would have us believe that Mary Shelley wrote her opus in a flurry of quills, over a stretch of several sleepless nights living in a tenement after Byron kicks them out, but this feels more like myth than truth. When she does eventually go to publish, she is roundly rebutted – only Shelley’s publisher will take her work, and only with the implication that it belongs to him. It’s up to Shelley to decide if he wants to take credit for his wife’s masterpiece.
This moment comes at the end of an emotional whirlwind, and it’s hard to remember so late in the movie that this is what everything else was set up for. Mary and Shelley’s relationship, both of gilded love and cruel neglect, only matters to us now because this woman’s work was set to be taken from her. Shelley’s potential betrayal is a danger far greater than what the typical romance can offer.
This is Haifaa al-Mansour’s first English-language film, after her breakout Wadjda (2012), made her the first female director from Saudi Arabia to earn international recognition. If her choice of subject seemed odd at the start of the film, it becomes evident by the climax.
Mary Shelley is a delirious epic of passion, but it’s based explicitly around the politics of the female voice and authorship. Its appeals to visual and dramatic pleasure may get it dismissed by some critics, but the story underneath speaks clearly for itself, just like the woman it memorializes.