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Review: Mary Shelley

It abandons its fruitful investigation of belief systems in favor of a simplistic articulation of Mary’s inspiration.

Mary Shelley
Photo: IFC Films

Casting attractive young film stars Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth, respectively, as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley makes Mary Shelley, director Haifaa al-Mansour’s biopic of the mother of Gothic fiction, a kind of grandfather’s paradox of the modern wave of eroticized young-adult romantic fantasy, reconfiguring the ancestor to match its descendant. The film’s cleverest trick, foregrounded from the moment that a teenaged Mary meets Percy when he’s already a radical with lofty and scandalous ideals on free love, is to suggest that, in YA terms, Percy himself is the monster with whom the bright and ambitious young woman falls hopelessly in love. As such, Mary is only able to see his most positive and intoxicating attributes and none of the danger he poses to her.

Despite the forthright opinions that Mary uses to goad her father, William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), and her conservative, demeaning stepmother, Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggatt), she quickly finds herself sidelined by the intensity of Percy’s declarative politics and firebrand poetry. Percy’s wooing of Mary hits the young woman so strongly that even when she discovers his abandoned wife (Ciara Charteris) and child, her feelings for him don’t waver—though it doesn’t hurt that Percy invokes his mother, who championed open relationships and freedom of personal choice in matters of the heart. Mary, so sarcastic and challenging around her family, finds in Percy a kindred spirit, failing to notice how she becomes a supplicant around him. That Mary continues to call him by his surname hints at an imbalance of power in their relationship, making her as much his partner as his number one fan.

With Percy living increasingly beyond his means, Mary’s self-awareness begins to reassert itself, and as her dissatisfactions mount, the film gives way to a striking Gothic malaise. Mary and Percy find themselves lulled by the torpor of the life lived by Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), who emits an air of musky indulgence, dressed in resplendent robes that nonetheless look as if they’ve never been washed. Stalking around his country chateau like a tomcat, Byron lays bare the emptiness of the free philosophy that Percy espouses, revealing the transparent narcissism of the well-fed aristocrat who needs a team of servants to uphold a lifestyle without work. Percy is enraptured with him, but Mary sees Byron for the crusty, stagnant hypocrite that he is, and in the process the last of her youthful idealism evaporates.

The film’s middle section is so memorable that it’s all the more unfortunate that the final stretch, the one that most directly concerns the creation of Frankenstein, adheres to such familiar biopic rhythms. The filmmakers abandon their fruitful investigation of belief systems in favor of a simplistic articulation of Mary’s inspiration, complete with a montage set to a clip show of previously seen moments as she rattles off passages in voiceover. Mary Shelley ultimately feels perfunctory in its defenses of Mary’s intelligence against doubting publishers who suspect her partner’s guiding hand, reducing itself to the story of a single physical accomplishment and trading ambivalent character study for tidy rationalizations.

Cast: Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Joanne Froggatt, Tom Sturridge, Maisie Williams, Stephen Dillane, Ben Hardy, Hugh O'Conor, Ciara Charteris, Jack Hickey Director: Haifaa al-Mansour Screenwriter: Emma Jensen, Haifaa al-Mansour Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 121 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2017 Buy: Video

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