Mary Shelley wraps the well-known, apocryphal tale of the genesis of Frankenstein. But where the earlier movie, Gothic, focused solely on the infamous and inspirational evening, this movie focuses primarily on the romance and disappointment of Shelley’s life that fed that inspiration. The two depictions of Mary herself are also significantly different, but they make an interesting pairing.
Alone, this movie is much more of a period romance than it is an historical retelling. It plays with feminism, as it should given the characters involved, but ultimately focuses more on character than polemic. Elle Fanning (Teen Spirit) is a perfect choice for the soft-spoken, galvanized young woman who wrote one of the most enduring pieces of literature in the last two centuries.
Douglas Booth (Loving Vincent) provides the story with a charismatic rake that we eventually recognize for what he is. Tom Sturridge (Velvet Buzzsaw) as Byron helps goad him along and serve as catalyst for the main event. The men in Mary’s adult life are complexly narcissistic, even while often being supportive. Her family, given life by Stephen Dillane (The Tunnel: Vengeance) as Mary’s father, and Bel Powley (Carrie Pilby) as her sister, are also constantly at odds with their own support of her.
Director and co-writer (with Emma Jensen) Haifaa Al Mansour (Wadjda) delivers a tale of women, their place in society, and their strength to ignore those boundaries. Al Mansour’s Mary isn’t a woman to be trifled with or ignored. Though she is failable, she is also aware and learns from her choices. While the result gets tied up in the realities of period drama, there is also a clear message to women to be who they want to be, even when it may not be easy or pleasant.
This isn’t as clean a film as I’d have liked in its message and intent. Given its purpose, it needed to take more lessons from Coppala’s Marie Antoinette than, say, Downton Abbey. It is still well executed and entertaining, at least at times, but it feels more weighed down by its period setting than transcending it. That said, it is one of the more complete views of Mary Shelley’s life I’ve seen.