Mary Shelley, the film, opens on a shot of young Mary (Elle Fanning), about 16, wearing a thick, variegated, cable-knit sweater, sitting idly on a tombstone, and thumbing through an old volume of ghost stories, spitballing macabre tales in her head. Although the scene takes place in England in 1814, it could easily be, with perhaps only the addition of a Polaroid camera, a scene of a 2018 Brooklyn hipster scratching out her own dark poetry in a Moleskine notebook while on break from her promising tech internship. Mary Shelley’s own aggressively modern sensibility and revolutionary attitudes are, one immediately intuits, still embodied by the powerful young women of the modern age. Thanks to Mary’s legacy, any 18-year-old now has the ability and a greater opportunity to be the most celebrated horror author of all time.
Sadly Haifaa Al-Mansour, the director of Mary Shelley, ends all parallels with modern thought on that tombstone. Mary herself was a revolutionary figure who lived an exciting life of hedonism and sin, tooled around with England’s poetic elite, and broke rules as her mother and her father often encouraged. She was a modern woman in every sense, too often shouldered with the inflated ego of a broody husband and his Byronic buddies. In Al-Mansour’s biopic, however, Mary has been carefully displayed with all of her edge sanded off and her contemporary immediacy removed. I think the film’s audiences are meant to intuit that Mary’s life was a litany of radical rebellion, but in practice, she comes across as merely a put-upon girlfriend who idly endures the men around her until she can finally author Frankenstein in the film’s final act.
The struggle is real, of course. Mary, raised on the ideas of her philosopher father and feminist mother (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a must-read) sought to live the way she always wanted, free from the strangling social norms of the time and brazenly defiant of the old-fashioned religious strictures that would force her into a loveless marriage. And while there are several scenes in Mary Shelley of Mary and Percy (the obnoxiously handsome Douglas Booth) canoodling in public, stealing wine from churches, and touting the benefits of atheism, none of it feels particularly daring or even all that interesting. The filmmakers wanted to tell a story of a life of art and hedonism, but were too shy to depict the lusty savor and poetic confrontation that the life implies.
It’s only when Mary finally completes Frankenstein – an event the audience has been patiently waiting to see – that Mary is finally allowed to express something akin to actual human passion. Only then does she confront Percy for all his lazy, obnoxious behavior. Only then does she confront publishers about prejudice. And only for a brief, glimmering moment, Al-Mansour seems to understand that Mary had some real blood pumping through her veins, and Elle Fanning is allowed to really tear into the role in ways she was previously unable to. Sadly, this minor moment of rebellion is undercut by an ending that seems to hand too much credit back to Percy, essentially letting him off the hook for all his mistreatment of his wife/wives.
Mary Shelley, as a film, does, however, explore salient parallels between the isolationism of Frankenstein’s monster – a creature with no companion – and Mary’s own isolationism experienced by her need to live on the outside of societal norms. Mary Shelley astutely observes that a life of hedonism and free love – especially as it is overseen by young drunken male poets – can easily be just another means to oppress and cheat on women.
It’s a pity there wasn’t more of a punk rock sensibility to Mary Shelley. Mary’s life demands edge and danger. One longs to see what Mary’s story would have looked like when handled by Sofia Coppola or, on a more extreme edge, a mid-’80s Alex Cox. Al-Mansour’s has flashes of insight, and glimpses of sensuousness, but ends up in the realm of the purely conventional.
Mary Shelley’s fascinating life story is told to contain a few brief glimpses of modern insight, but ultimately weakens under its over-use of conventional, romantic storytelling tropes.