Mary Shelley (3 stars)

Mary Shelley

EIFF 2018: Haifaa Al-Mansour helms an absorbing if overly respectable biopic of the titular author

The wild imaginings that sparked the creation of Frankenstein 200 years ago now inspire a rather more sedate literary biopic in Mary Shelley. The second feature from Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Mansour finds common ground with her admired 2012 debut Wadjda, depicting Shelley as a rebellious woman fighting to make her presence count in a male-dominated society.

Elle Fanning's Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin is an unusually mature 16-year-old with a taste for the macabre and a desire to write her own books. A meeting with radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth) convinces her that she has met her soul-mate. His words are a provocation, his poetry an assault on her senses and she is duly emboldened to defy her dourly disapproving father William (Stephen Dillane) and begin a new life with Shelley. Rebellion clearly runs in the family, as her flirtatious stepsister Claire (Bel Powley) has soon attached herself to mad, bad Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge).

Reality never quite matches the promise of Shelley's writings and the film argues that every heartache, disappointment and loss that Mary suffered fed into the construction of Frankenstein's lonely, plaintive creature. The personal also has a political dimension, as Mary is faced with a society that finds it easier to assume that the anonymous literary sensation Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was written by her husband rather than contemplate that the work could possibly be hers.

An unassuming period drama that unfolds in gloomy, candlelit rooms and boggy landscapes, Mary Shelley is solidly crafted and absorbing. Fanning sustains a convincing-enough English accent and the British cast seem entirely at home among the finery and eccentricity of their roles. It just feels a little too respectable and tasteful to make the subject really come alive.

Screening as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018. Selected release from Fri 6 Jul.

Mary Shelley

  • 3 stars
  • 2017
  • USA
  • 2h
  • 15
  • Directed by: Haifaa Al-Mansour
  • Cast: Elle Fanning, Maisie Williams, Douglas Booth, Ben Hardy
  • UK release: 6 July 2018

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Fanning) meets her soulmate in poet Percy Shelley (Booth), skips off to the continent with he and her sister (Powley) and goes about writing her first novel, Frankenstein. Unassuming period drama, solidly crafted and absorbing but a little too respectful and tasteful to really come alive.