'Mary Shelley' is a deeply conventional movie about ragingly unconventional people

( PG-13
( Monitor Movie Guide )

Elle Fanning portrays the author of 'Frankenstein.'

Courtesy of IFC Films
Elle Fanning stars in 'Mary Shelley.'

The sad irony of the biopic “Mary Shelley” is that it’s a deeply conventional movie about ragingly unconventional people. Mary, of course, was the author of “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” and wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was one of the rock-star poets, along with John Keats and Lord Byron, of the early Romantic era. Her father was the celebrated political philosopher William Godwin; her mother, who died shortly after Mary’s birth, was the feminist firebrand Mary Wollstonecraft, author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Mary was 16 when she met the 21-year-old Percy and only 18 when she began writing “Frankenstein.” 

So why, with all this perfervid material at her disposal, did the director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, and her co-screenwriter, Emma Jensen, opt for such cautiousness? It’s a mystery greater than any posed in the movie. Granted, a writer’s life is not inherently the most cinematic of subjects, but if ever an author had something else going on in her life aside from a wooden desk and a quill pen, it’s Mary Shelley.

When we first see her, as played by Elle Fanning, she is very much under the tutelage of her father (Stephen Dillane), a progressive idealist with a mountain of debt and a desire to instill his right-thinking ways in his daughter. The strictness of the father-daughter relationship is leavened by their mutual love of learning: They understand each other. When he criticizes, not harshly, her girlhood writings for not being individualistic enough, he’s right and she knows it. He encourages her to find her own voice.

It is perhaps inevitable that Mary is instantly smitten by Percy (Douglas Booth), given the poet’s dash and his admiration for her father. Those dashing ways soon become literally so, as Percy, with Mary in tow, along with her stepsister, Claire (Bel Powley), expends quality time dodging creditors. He also neglects to mention that he is married with a child. The marriage, he declares, is essentially over, but the aura of scandal clings to the couple.

The paradox, of course, which the filmmakers barely explore, is that these freethinking romantics, especially Mary, are adhering to the same conventions they profess to detest. When one of Percy’s closest friends privately makes advances toward her, she is repelled and tells her husband. To her astonishment, he’s OK with his friend’s provocation, telling her, “I don’t own you.” He calls her a hypocrite, like her father (who, for a time, disowned her), and all she can answer is, “My truth is that there is no one else for me.” 

All this plays out like a second-rate soap opera, full of glaring eyes and high dudgeon. Fanning does her best throughout to keep a lid on the overemoting, but she’s surrounded by a bevy of world-class hams, none bigger than Tom Sturridge as Byron, who, as multiple commentators have noted, carries on like Jack Sparrow (only without Johnny Depp’s flip verve). “What is life if it also doesn’t have love?” crows Byron, who hardly seems to have time between wild sexual escapades to do much writing.

The excursion in the summer of 1816 to Byron’s villa near Lake Geneva, Switzerland, is the film’s high-low point. Mary and Percy, along with the besotted Claire, now Byron’s mistress, are greeted by the celebrity poet with such sashaying flamboyance that I expected juicy revels to come. But it’s pretty dull down by the villa, despite Al-Mansour’s attempts to thickly lay on the Gothic fireworks. Everyone sits around concocting scary stories, leading, of course, to the aha moment when Mary hits upon her “Frankenstein” idea. 

Mary suffers a great deal in this movie, including the loss of a baby daughter, but since she appears disaffected from the start, it’s difficult to get a fix on her turmoil. Most of the time she just seems ferociously glum. When “Frankenstein” is published in 1818, anonymously, with a preface by Percy, it is assumed, from the high quality of the work, that her husband is the author – a falsity he does not encourage but nevertheless is not dispelled until the book is eventually reissued in her name. 

What is missing here is any real sense of what it must have been like for two great writers to be living together, especially in that era, with its push-pull of progressivism and parochialism. This is a movie about fireworks where nothing ignites. Grade: C (Rated PG-13 for sexuality and thematic elements, including substance abuse.)

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