Most of us know Mary Shelley as the masterful writer of Frankenstein. Maybe you know she was friends with Lord Byron and that her love with her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley was the kind where she’d keep his heart after his death, carrying it around as a morbid memento. I knew little else about the life of this groundbreaking English author before watching the new biopic Mary Shelley. But that didn’t keep me from finding it deeply disappointing.
Elle Fanning stars as 16-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Goodwin, the spirited daughter of two authors known for their scandalous personal lives. Far from feeling shamed by the whispers of gossip or the scornful hisses of her stepmother, Mary strives to live up to her parents’ legacy of brilliant writing and dedication to freedom over conformity. When she falls for a sexy young poet called Shelley (Douglas Booth), she falls hard. Not even the shocking discovery that he’s already married and a father is enough to dissuade her. Defying her own father, the pair run off together, and begin a tumultuous relationship rife with passion and neglect, which inspires her most famous work.
The story begins like a Jane Austen adaptation, with willful young women bonding—in this case over the scary stories forbidden by their father—and the introduction of a roguish romantic interest. But while Austen’s heroines usually suffer heartbreak, they ultimately find happiness. And though this look into Shelley’s life stretches only until her mid-twenties, it doesn’t give us any promise of a happy ending. Which maybe wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t all become woefully one-note so early on.
Once it’s clear that Shelley is the kind of man who’d walk away from his wife and child, we know Mary’s love will not be whom she dreams. And over the next 2 hours, he proves it again and again, battering down her self-esteem and making her miserable (and us too). It’s unrealistic to think she’ll cast off this selfish, irresponsible fuckboi. And so we watch helplessly as she channels her pain into a monster story that would chill spines and break hearts across centuries. But this gives Fanning very little to play. In the first act, she’s lively and witty. And then, she rapidly descends into sorrow, with little variation to break up this morose monotony. Scene after scene is Shelley cheating on her, scolding her, or guilt-tripping her. It gets infuriating, then tedious. And you know there’ll be no escape from her tormentor since the movie is called Mary Shelley.
Booth is perfectly cast as the pretty but petty Shelley. Tom Sturridge swings in to play a devilish, pretentious yet sultry Byron. Stephen Dillane brings a throbbing ache as Mary’s frustrated father, while Bel Powley comes alive as her devil-may-care little sister. Even Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams pops in with an eyebrow-raising Scottish accent for a few scenes. These performances glitter with passion and pathos. But all gets lost to the consuming muck of its overlong and deeply dour second act.
Mary Shelley’s a shocking disappointment not only because it lets down its promising cast, but also because it came from Haifaa Al-Mansour, who helmed the outstanding and inspiring breakout Wadjda. In that outstanding coming-of-age film, she managed to construct a story of a wonderfully vivid and defiant young girl, making her way in a world that rushed to judge her. So, Al-Mansour seems a perfect fit for the material that is Shelley’s life. But there’s no life here!
What Mary Shelley needed was a jolt of energy. Rather than dialogue that explains to the audience how Mary is so like her abandoned monster, I wish that Al-Mansour and Emma Jensen’s script had dared to bring this classic creature into the tale, perhaps taking a note from The Man Who Invented Christmas. Seeing Fanning hovering over a blank sheet of paper looking pained or scribbling away as voiceover repeats the same lines with different inflection is not cinematic or terribly engaging. But just imagine if in the dark of night her monster visited her when she was alone in her empty bedroom, and together they shared their heartbreak. You have at the fringes the most iconic movie monster of all time! Why not use it!? By bringing her fiction to life within her biopic, Jensen and Al-Mansour could have created a fitting and fascinating tribute to the woman who suffered tremendously, but then persevered to turn her pain into art. As it is, their seeming dedication to detailing her hurt, then glossing over her process, makes for a mournful drama that’s far from inspired.
Mary Shelley makes its US Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 28th. A theatrical release will follow on May 25th.