PLOT: This is the story of the passionate romance between Mary and Percy Shelley, all leading up to her creation of perhaps the most famous monster of all time… Frankenstein.
REVIEW: The story of Mary Shelley and the creation of the classic novel “Frankenstein” is absolutely fascinating. The drug and sex fueled summer of 1816 where she was inspired to bring back the dead has been explored before in films like HAUNTED SUMMER and GOTHIC. This time around, the focus is on the romance between Mary and poet Percy Shelley. While all of it leads up to a certain figure that has become a Halloween icon, MARY SHELLEY is about the girl behind the monster. Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, the film introduces us to a young teenager who is troublesome for her family with her free-thinking ideas. One who will foolishly follow a poet as a means of escape. If only this story could have even come slightly close to living up to the legendary writings of Ms. Shelley herself.
Mary Shelley (Elle Fanning) is a pretty and intelligent young girl intrigued by science and horror stories. She lives with her loving but stern father, William Godwin (Stephen Dillane) – a famous writer himself – and her sister Claire (Bel Powley). However, her relationship with her stepmother is beyond strained. With a promise of romance and passion, Mary falls for a poet she meets by the name of Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). As the tensions in the family are raised, Mary and her sister decide to risk everything they have and run away with the poet. Soon, Claire begins her own romantic journey when she falls for the infamous lothario Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge). Their worlds collide when Mary, Percy and Claire spend their summer with Lord Byron and John Polidori (Ben Hardy), a physician who also has feelings for Mary.
Instead of focusing on her incredible work of fiction, MARY SHELLEY follows a more traditional biographical template. Unfortunately, while it certainly has its moments, it is a bit of a dull experience to sit through. It was interesting learning more about the romance between Percy and Mary, as well as watching her sister Claire head down a dark path with Byron. However, all of that material is handled as safely and by-the-numbers as possible. This is not to say that it is a terrible film, it’s just not a very inspired one. Haifaa Al-Mansour – the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia – does a serviceable job, but this tale could have been so much more.
Elle Fanning is a very talented young actress, and her work here offers a few examples why. However, she appears to struggle with a lifeless script. Mary Shelley herself is such an important literary figure, one who seemed to have a much more interesting experience than we see here. Even when we finally get to the period where the writers challenge each other to write a scary story, it lacks any real thrill or excitement over the prospect. Instead, the film places its focus on Mary as more of a feminist icon who fought against a world with no interest in a horror tale written by a woman. While that too could certainly make for something special, it is bogged down by the material.
As far as the romance, I enjoyed the relationship between Booth, Fanning and Powley. However, the mood shifts a bit when Byron enters the picture. If only they had gone a little farther with all the characters instead of playing it safe. This is the creation of arguably the most famous monster of all time, so why make it so deadly dull? Sturridge adds some life to his portrayal of the arrogant poet, yet they make it very hard to understand why Claire would be so charmed by him. All the elements are here to create something entrancing, yet all we get is a professionally made biopic that fills in a few blanks on Mary’s life, but little else. For me personally, I could at least entertain in that.
MARY SHELLEY takes what could have been a riveting life story, and instead plays it safe. Elle Fanning is good as the famed writer, yet she is never given the chance to really shine here. If you are interested in Mary Shelley, and her creation, you’d be better off seeking out either of the previously mentioned features, GOTHIC and HAUNTED SUMMER. While both films don’t give you the history of the writer, they give a far more enthralling version of the time when Frankenstein was born. With a mess of a script and it’s leisurely pacing, MARY SHELLEY is not nearly as captivating as the story could have allowed.