AUTHOR, JOURNALIST, TV PERSONALITY
6 July 2023
120 min 42 sec
Mary Shelley panders to several biographical faux pas and eventually loses sight of what the material’s premise set out to do. Shelley becomes a Mills and Boon revival with Catherine Cookson undertones.
Biographies are often cultivated with difficulty and more often than not executed in a way that narrows their audience spectrum. Mary Shelley, based on the author of the same name, suffers similar problems of being an undemanding drama, but because of its assembled cast and extraordinary set pieces that masterfully recreate 19th-century London with grandiose period detail, the film, penned by first-time screenwriter Emma Jensen and co-written/directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour (HARDtalk), propels itself into a league of its own before its final downfall into Catherine Cookson territory of the worst kind.
Mary Shelley is played by Elle Fanning, who was last seen in The Beguiled (2017), and the film chronicles her love affair with the charismatic married poet, Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), and her determination, her ideas about feminism and her free way of thinking. Mary and Percy elope to escape the wrath of the Wollstonecraft family’s disapproval, accompanied by Mary’s half-sister (Bel Powley). Eventually, while staying at the home of Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) at Lake Geneva, Mary conceives the novel Frankenstein after being set the challenge to write a ghost story, and what soon comes to pass is an unsettling love story that descends into a toxic void of emotions and creates the backbone of one of pop culture’s most fascinating monsters.
Elle Fanning, as always, carries her badge of innocent serenity with masterful grace, similar to her equanimeous poise in The Neon Demon, a more demanding role than the material offered here. The film’s almost perfect casting captures the pathos of the Frankenstein story thanks to solid performances, but the film’s whimsical script derails its proceedings into soap opera territory more often than not – a habit both writer and director should try to avoid in future projects.
The film’s rich aesthetics help detract from the mediocre baggage carried from post to post as the first-time writer and director tick off the generic emotional tussles so often focused on in such dramatisations. Lord Byron, played by Tom Sturridge, is the film’s ultimate trump card. Sturridge manages to layer up his performance as the overtly obnoxious
toff without stumbling into the intolerable audience red zone.
Once the film eventually shifts focus from Mary and the so-called “whore monger”, Shelley, the story quickly shapes up and becomes more interesting, with the biography primarily detailing the fictional, death-defying doctor. It’s lonely yet sinister but not at all terrifying, the main emphasis setting forth a man-made creature that is deeply unhappy and burdened with a life it didn’t ask for.
But Al-Mansour shifts her focus once more and the film’s conclusion dampens the winning moments cultivated with earlier well-meaning plot devices. Mary Shelley’s ill-judged climax once and for all narrows the film’s audience spectrum and destroys all hope the film had of becoming something rather special.
It’s extremely sad and bestows the film’s well-intentioned feminist message. Mary Shelley has all the pieces but like a set of Ikea instructions the product just doesn’t come together all that well and sadly looks nothing like the showroom model.
Mary Shelley is in cinemas and on demand now.
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Review / Published 10 August 2023 @ 17:00 PM