Mary Shelley – movie review

by James Robins / 19 July, 2018
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A biopic about writer of Frankenstein turns into lacklustre period piece.

The author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, lived at the edge of the Enlightenment, in an age of liberated social codes and revolutionary utopianism.

Her mother was the singularly brilliant Mary Wollstonecraft, a pioneering feminist, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Her father was William Godwin, one of the founders of philosophical anarchism and author of Political Justice. Together, they were interlocutors with Edmund Burke, and helped to publish Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man in England.

Shelley grew up in the wake of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, began a relationship with the radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was 16, swanned in debauched fashion around tumultuous Europe with Lord Byron before he went off to die for Greek independence, and in 1818, at just 20, published one of the most enduring novels in the English language.

Any retelling of Mary’s thrilling emancipation ought to take on such a hefty tradition. Alas! What we get in Mary Shelley is a damp, melodramatic romance corseted with period clichés. You just know that someone, at some point, will say the word “vexed” in clipped Queen’s English.

Much of the problem is in Elle Fanning’s portrayal of the title character. She’s usually very absorbing, but here there’s barely a glimpse of Mary’s imperious intellect or fierce independence. Instead, we get doe-eyed and almost pathetic devotion to philandering Percy Bysshe. “I inherited nothing but fire in my soul,” Fanning intones, sounding entirely unconvincing.

And the birth of Mary’s famous monster, the “New Prometheus” as she called him, is the subject of some limp psychoanalysis: two of her children died young, and it was her grieving need to have them back that inspired Victor Frankenstein’s experiment in reanimation.

All of this is especially disappointing considering the director is Haifaa al-Mansour, the first woman to make a feature film in Saudi Arabia (the delightful freewheeling childhood tale Wadjda, released in 2012).

You would think that someone so pioneering would be keenly alive to Mary’s adventureous spirit and the trials she faced. It’s hard to imagine that the author would have liked this rigid, weakly stitched-together picture. She would have taken one look and decided it wasn’t worth bringing to life.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★

Video: Transmission Films

This article was first published in the July 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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