Mary Shelley (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” by Mary Shelley is perhaps one of my all-time favorite literary works, a story about abandonment and desperate longing for human connection. It must be noted that this film, written for the screen by Emma Jansen, is not an autobiography of the author’s life before and after the novel was written despite the title. It is a curious film, certainly one worth watching, because although it takes crucial events from Shelley’s life as a sixteen-year-old with a strong passion for writing horror stories, it is also quite generous in taking liberties of fictionalizing certain elements in order to tell a story with more defined themes between the classic novel and the author’s formative years.
I enjoyed Elle Fanning as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, at first as a naive girl seduced by the idea of romance and escape. It is wonderful casting because Fanning is a type of performer who exudes a youthful aura and an intelligence beyond her years with seemingly minimal effort. Her interpretation of Mary is rooted in strength: misery may befall the figure she embodies, but we always feel as though she will weather the storm. Director Haifaa Al-Mansour is fond of close-ups—and Fanning delivers through her communicative eyes, using her ballerina-like body language as support, as Mary begins to learn that life is tough and tricky outside of her father’s bookstore. To escape from home is, in a way, to abandon a big part of who you are.
At times it comes across as though the picture is going down a checklist of what a period drama should be like. I enjoyed this aspect of the movie far less than when we are simply in a room—not of two people but three—and two individuals are clashing while the odd person out is simply listening and feeling awkward. It is because the material’s strength is in the dialogue. Oftentimes what is being talked about is not actually what the scene is about. To appreciate a scene fully, it is important that we have an understanding of the ones that came before.
For instance, consistently watchable is the tumultuous relationship between Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). Both claim to believe, for example, that love is freedom—so much so that traditional monogamy may too restrictive for some couples. Mary and Percy may be reading the same progressive book, but they are not at all on the same chapter. Confrontations are dramatic (and occasionally off-putting because the pacing is willing to slow to a crawl when filmmakers wish to communicate how depression might be like, for example), but I was able to find bits of blackest humor in the seams. One says the other is being a hypocrite while the claimant is blinded by his own. We are reminded by how young the unmarried subjects really are when life demands that they pay the consequences for their actions—or inaction. (Mary and Percy met when she was sixteen and he twenty-one.)
I was most fascinated by Mary’s interest in the idea of the dead being brought back to life. One scene in particular is a standout: when Mary, Percy and Mary’s stepsister Claire (Bel Powley) see a show called “Phantasmagoria” in which a headless frog’s limbs move following a jolt of electricity. It is not shot from a horror point of view but hope and inspiration. Also interesting is when Mary meets John William Polidori (Ben Hardy), physician and soon-to-be author of the novella “The Vampyre: A Tale.” I wished their connection were delved into a bit more because the performers share a certain warm, sibling-like chemistry. Maybe it is because Fanning and Hardy choose to play their characters as outsiders who find strength in silence and humility.