Movie Review: ‘MARY SHELLEY’ fails to reanimate history

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

MARY SHELLEY

Rated PG-13, 120 minutes
Directed by: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Starring: Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Tom Sturridge, Bel Powley, Stephen Dillane, Maisie WilliamsBen Hardy, Joanne Froggatt

Author Mary Shelley was a trailblazing radical. Her works are now legendary. It’s been said that she learned to write her own name by tracing the letters on her mother’s gravestone – and then later in life, lost her virginity at that same gravesite. She was the original goth girl before there was such a term. She was the queen of the horror genre – and a feminist badass on the political scene. However, audiences treated to co-writer/ director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s MARY SHELLEY will only catch brief glimpses of the heralded heroine. Her fiery, rebellious persona gets clouded in her own origin story – which makes for an underwhelming, pedestrian and practically lifeless biopic that fails to revive interest in the feminist force.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning) always wanted to be writer like her deceased mother. But her father, a writer and philosopher himself, did not have that same wish for his daughter. She’s lived a life secretly scribbling in the small corners of his bookshop and at her mother’s grave. It’s not until she’s introduced to poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth) that Mary’s world turns upside down. They fall madly in love, cavorting around town and canoodling in the cemetery. Her disapproving father condemns their romance, not just because of Percy’s precarious predicament with his finances, but also because – and this is a biggie – he’s already married and had a child. Just when Mary’s writing skills are taking form, she chooses love over career aspirations.

Elle Fanning in MARY SHELLEY. Courtesy of IFC Films.

Perhaps what’s most disappointing is that there’s nothing here we can’t learn from reading Ms. Shelley’s Wikipedia page. A cursory glance post-screening proves this point. Al-Mansour (WADJDA), along with co-writer Emma Jensen, are slavish in adapting the historical happenings, but barely scratch the surface of their protagonist’s psyche. The filmmakers show Mary finding her voice after she’s battled through loneliness, abandonment, hurt and neglect, but they fail to dig deeper than a superficial read of these tragic events that forged her spirit. The more atmospheric qualities prevail in a few sequences – like the shots of the heavens, or the sounds of nature (both of which hint at the dynamic, profound themes in Mary’s future work). However, it’s far too fleeting to leave an indelible stamp on the viewer.

While the events that befall the couple shape Mary into the powerful writer of Frankenstein, audiences will find their patience tested as she doesn’t put pen to paper until the third act. That’s where this story should have begun. Up until that point, the ingredients that form the basis for her most famous novel are sporadically parceled out. Also, there are moments when the characters don’t interact with each other in any normal, human manner. When Percy surprises Mary and her stepsister/ bestie Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley) with a lavish mansion, neither asks how he went from extreme poverty to restored wealth overnight. Plus, it further dodges the protagonist’s A-story by bringing in the wholly unnecessary C-story of John Polidori (Ben Hardy) and Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge). This serves to augment the plodding feeling of an already exhaustive two hour run time.

Despite the fine performances of Fanning and Booth, the material’s lackluster qualities render the film rather corpse-like in appeal.

MARY SHELLEY is now playing in select cities and is available on VOD.

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