The circumstances under which Mary Shelley conceived of and began writing Frankenstein have become almost as well-known as the novel itself, and have been dramatized onscreen going all the way back to the prologue to James Whale’s 1935 Bride of Frankenstein. Although titled Mary Shelley, Haifaa Al-Mansour’s film focuses only on a short period in the title character’s life, culminating in the publication of her most well-known work. Getting to that point is a bit of a laborious slog, though, and the famous sojourn in Geneva that inspired the composition of Frankenstein takes up only about 20 minutes of the two-hour movie.
Instead, Al-Mansour and screenwriter Emma Jensen spend most of their time on the volatile romance between young Mary (Elle Fanning) and poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), whom Mary meets when she’s just a teenager. Fanning projects fierce intelligence and deep sensitivity as Mary, but Booth plays Percy as a blank pretty boy, and the movie portrays him as so immature and insensitive that it’s hard to understand why Mary sticks by him with such dedication. Whisked away from her principled but often penniless father William Godwin (Stephen Dillane) and her judgmental stepmother Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggatt), Mary follows Percy into a life of excess and debauchery, taking her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley) along with her.
Although Mary and Percy’s passionate lovemaking and passionate arguments get the most screen time, the movie’s central relationship is really the bond between Mary and Claire, who clearly idolizes her stepsister and is jealous of both her talents and her appeal to famous men. But all of the relationships remain at a superficial, soap-operatic level, with Mary shooting suspicious looks at Claire every time she appears too affectionate with Percy. The dedication to the romantic ideal of a creative life, at the expense of respectability and stability, has more thematic potential than the rote relationship drama, but the filmmakers downplay much of Mary’s creative endeavors. The entirety of Frankenstein gets written in a single montage.
As is too often the case in biopics about artistic geniuses, characters talk about Mary’s brilliance far more frequently than she demonstrates it, and even Fanning’s layered performance doesn’t have much room for Mary the radical thinker. Saudi director Al-Mansour made a hugely promising debut in her native country with the 2012 coming-of-age story Wadjda, but there’s virtually no personal or authorial voice in Mary Shelley, which has the look and tone of a handsome but anonymous British TV production.
Although Al-Mansour is credited with “additional writing” (whatever that means), the distinctive character development that she brought to her debut is in short supply here. There’s a feminist message of sorts in Mary’s determination to assert her autonomy, but she remains defined by her relationships to men, whether that’s her father or Percy or the lascivious Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), whose initial prodding provides the impetus for Frankenstein. Mary Shelley lived for more than 30 years after publishing Frankenstein, but Mary Shelley the movie ends her story there, once her swoony teenage love story has come to its conclusion.