Mary Shelley is a film about the author of the gothic literary masterpiece Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus as she is just on the verge of adulthood. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin is portrayed as a sixteen year old girl in a strong performance by Elle Fanning. Ms. Fanning has proven, with films like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon and Francis Ford Coppola’s Twixt, that she can do dark. I was hoping she would really dive in to this juicy role and give us Mary Godwin at her darkest and most disturbed, but alas, this is not that kind of movie.
Mary Shelley is directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, a Saudi Arabian woman. Al-Mansour made history by being the first Saudi Arabian woman to direct a full-length feature film in the country’s history. That film was the critically praised Wadjda (2013). Mary Shelley has not been as well-received by critics or audiences. Maybe it’s Al-Mansour’s sophomore slump?
Al-Mansour’s triumph in her country is a huge victory for feminist filmmaking, and one would hope that a film she made about Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley would dwell on the strong feminist spirit and philosophy she brought to Frankenstein, her genius magnum opus and cultural giant. Instead, we get a ho-hum love story about Mary Godwin’s romance with the handsome poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth).
Mary Shelley tells the story of teenage Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin as she becomes frustrated with her mother and is sent away to live with friends in Scotland. In Scotland, she meets Percy Shelley, and he follows her back to England to study under Mary’s father. They fall in love. That’s pretty much the gist of it.
There is nothing fascinating or, in all actuality, even scandalous about Mary’s relationship with Percy. There are several characters who should be rich and exciting but, alas, they get so little screen time we can’t develop a relationship with them. Mary’s political philosopher father, William Godwin, is played by the remarkable Stephen Dillane (The Hours) and her feminist philosopher mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, is played by the brilliant Joanne Froggatt (Downtown Abbey). Mary Shelley had remarkable parents! Unfortunately, these actor’s talents are completely wasted on underdeveloped characters who appear to have little to no impact on the young woman who would become one of the greatest feminist philosophers and writers in human history.
Yet another wasted performance comes from the great Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones), as Mary’s feisty Scottish pal. It almost seems like a crime to give her so little screen time.
The best performance belongs to the incredible Bel Powley as Claire Claremont, Mary’s younger half-sister. Bel Powley is amazing. She is absolutely captivating in films like The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Carrie Pilby and she delivers a damn near flawless performance in Mary Shelley. She is funny and incredibly wise, in her own strange way. Her relationship with foppish cad Byron (Tom Sturridge) turns out to be much more fascinating and watchable than the relationship that is central to the film’s plot.
While Mary Shelley is beautifully filmed and contains a good performance by Elle Fanning, it could have been so much better. If you do end up catching this film in theaters, go for Bel Powley. She’s amazing. You might want to keep an eye on her.