Mary Shelley opens in a goth-as-hell way, showing sixteen-year-old Mary reading a horror novel on her mother’s grave. Elle Fanning, who plays Mary from ages sixteen to eighteen, is well cast: she plays the budding author as smart, stubborn and passionate, a teenager who flirts with her crush by taking him to her mother’s grave and telling him that she learned how to read by tracing its letters.
The movie, which premiered at Tribeca Film Fest, focuses on Mary’s life from the time she was sent away from her family for a fateful stay in Scotland—where she met and fell in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth)—to the publication of her novel Frankenstein. That means that the biopic covers just two years in Mary’s life, but those were two very eventful years: Mary decides to run away with Percy even though he is already married with a five-year-old child; she gives birth to her own child, who dies after Percy insists the family flee from creditors during a rainstorm; and she spends a summer with Percy, Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), Mary’s sister Claire (Bel Powley), and Dr. John Polidori (Ben Hardy) in Geneva, where she begins writing Frankenstein.
Mary's life story is fascinating, but director Haifaa al-Mansour tones down some of the more interesting (and goth) aspects. Legend has it that Mary lost her virginity to Percy on her mother’s grave—in al-Mansour's version, Mary and Percy only consummate their affair after informing her father they’re an item and then eloping and moving in together despite his objections. Al-Mansour hints at romances between Claire and Percy, Mary and John Polidori, and Percy and Lord Byron, but none of these are shown to go beyond a flirtation (Claire and Percy’s affair is more heavily implied to have happened than the others, but there’s still plausible deniability). There’s much discussion of Percy Shelley's and Lord Byron’s ideals of free love, but from what we see, everyone could be monogamous. Similarly, characters often refer to the scandal Mary has caused by running away with Percy, but the only way we see the scandal is when Percy impulsively throws dinner party and no one shows up. The tell-not-show strategy even extends to Mary’s daughter’s death: we see Mary mourning the loss, but the baby’s illness, death, and funeral happen offscreen. The result is a movie that’s slower-paced and less interesting than its subject deserves—and the recitations of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry don’t help.
Which is not to say there’s nothing to recommend Mary Shelley—the acting is strong, particularly from Fanning, as well as Douglas Booth, who manages to smolderingly show why Mary would stay with fuckboy Percy, and Tom Sturridge, whose moody, intense, eyeliner-wearing Lord Byron deserves more screentime. The costumes and cinematography make the movie visually romantic, and hopefully the movie will cause more people to seek out Mary Shelley’s work. ( 3 / 5 )
top photo: Mary Shelley
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Erika W. Smith is BUST's digital editorial director. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @erikawynn and email her at email@example.com.