Read biographies of Mary Shelley and meet a woman whose relatively brief years encompassed great literary achievement, passionate romance, adventurous spirit and heartbreaking tragedy. But watch the new movie “Mary Shelley," and you won’t get too much of any of this. Rating: 2 stars out of 4.
There’s no question that Mary Shelley’s life was cinematic. While still in her teens, she began to write the horror classic “Frankenstein,” a book conceived on one of literature’s most famous dark-and-stormy nights, at Lord Byron’s rented villa near Lake Geneva. It was published two years later in 1818, without her name on it — women, it was then believed, did not write such books, or publish them. Read biographies of Mary — I recommend Charlotte Gordon’s “Romantic Outlaws” or Fiona Sampson’s new “In Search of Mary Shelley” — and meet a woman whose relatively brief years encompassed great literary achievement, passionate romance, adventurous spirit and heartbreaking tragedy.
But watch the new movie “Mary Shelley,” with Elle Fanning in the title role, and you won’t get too much of any of this. The film, though handsome and well-acted, reduces Mary Shelley’s accomplishments; it’s almost over by the time “Frankenstein” gets written, with little attention paid to its author’s creative spark. Instead, we watch her folding laundry and gazing moony-eyed at the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth, sporting the latest in 19th-century hair pomade), with whom she promptly runs off. You would think it would be electric to see the love affair between these two brilliant minds, complicated by the presence of Mary’s simpering stepsister (Bel Powley) and, eventually, the ultra-louche Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge, nicely conveying the sense of a perpetual not-quite-poetic hangover); you’d be wrong. The film often seems more interested in what’s going on around Mary than in Mary herself.
Though casting an American in this role seems a curious choice, Fanning does well with the accent and with Mary’s quietly simmering gaze. And director Haifaa Al-Mansour was right to cast an actual teen in the role; you get a heartbreaking sense of how very young Mary was, and how complicated her life quickly became. But despite this rich emotional material (not to mention some gloriously shabby drawing rooms), the film feels surprisingly dull and conventional — two things its heroine most definitely was not.
“There is something at work in my soul which I do not understand,” wrote Mary in “Frankenstein,” a quote which opens the film; pity “Mary Shelley” couldn’t have shown us that something, flickering bright.
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★★ “Mary Shelley,” with Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Stephen Dillane, Ben Hardy, Maisie Williams, Joanne Froggatt. Directed by Haifaa Al Mansour, from a screenplay by Emma Jensen and Al Mansour. 120 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sexuality and thematic elements including substance abuse. Grand Illusion.