The tale of the mastermind behind Frankenstein is ironically much like the monster itself – pieced together with unusual and unexpected things and given life through shock and lunacy.
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Corey J. Hogan
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning), a teenage girl bored with her familial duties under her philosopher father (Stephen Dillane) in 18th century London, escapes reality by burying herself in books and conjuring ghost stories for her own amusement. Seeing her need for a more meaningful lifestyle, her father sends her off to live as a ward in a Scottish residence, where she meets the handsome and talented young poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). Their chemistry is instant, and so begins to burn the fires of an incredibly unconventional and bohemian love affair, one filled with both passion and tragedy and that would eventually inspire Mary’s gothic magnum opus, Frankenstein.
Haifaa al-Mansour (director of the game-changing Saudi Arabian gem Wadjda) and writer Emma Jensen’s bibliographical Mary Shelley is a very curious interpretation of the life and loves of history’s great horror author. Veering off-course from the typical tune of a period piece or biopic, it brings to mind last year’s A Quiet Passion, which also told the life of a famous female wordsmith of centuries past. However, in many ways this feels like that film’s antithesis; where Passion had marrow but was placid and loaded with antipathy, Shelley sacrifices historical accuracy for entertainment value but becomes over-the-top and melodramatic in the process, leaving us with a puzzling portrayal of the brilliant author.
Like a soap opera, we ride a rollercoaster of overplayed emotional moments that sporadically form Shelley’s coming-of-age, which, strangely, draws much of its drama from sudden shock events or characters having a change of heart at the drop of a hat. It’s frankly bonkers, making less and less sense at it goes on; almost every character seems to suffer from bipolar disorder as a means of causing grief for Mary when convenient.
The worst offender is of course Percy (a portrayal that has already been criticised as ridiculous by many), who is smug, careless and frustratingly inconsistent. He lives a bourgeoisie life that stops and starts depending on a mysterious trust fund from his parents, and seems to go in and out of loving Mary as he makes poor judgement calls that lead to the death of their child and selfishly takes credit for Mary’s writings while passing her off as a piece of meat for his similarly absurd friend Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge). Whether or not we are meant to love or loathe this man as Mary does is never clear, and Booth’s mugging through it never helps.
Thank goodness then, for Fanning, who brings some kind of balance to the madness running rampant. She confidently carries the doom magnet that is Shelley through her tumultuous journey; bringing her trademark dainty assurance, tenacity and sexual energy to make her depiction the most believable thing in an otherwise farcical memoir.
So like Frankenstein’s monster, this is a real patchwork and stroke of insanity that requires a great deal of imagination to accept. And yet, as a truly bizarre take on a remarkable woman’s life, Mary Shelley is worth a look for the amusingly abstract tale that will cause a reaction one way or another – even if it is wide-eyed bewilderment.
Mary Shelley is available in Australian cinemas from 6th July
Image courtesy of Transmission films