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EIFF: Mary Shelley review - biopic of Frankenstein writer fails to come alive

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Verdict: Despite its admirably modern take on Mary Shelley, this film manages to turn its protagonist's fascinating life into a bit of a bore. 

The famous image of Frankenstein’s monster first awakening allegedly came to Mary Shelley in a dream – a detail delightfully recreated in biopic Mary Shelley. As thunder rages outside, Mary’s bedroom is transformed into a laboratory, and the crudely stitched-together arm of a sheeted creature spasms into life. It’s a moment of high gothic camp that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Hammer Horror flick, but is also a welcome thrill in a film that plays like an adaptation of the SparkNotes page on Mary Shelley – only without the spark.  

Elle Fanning plays Mary, an aspiring writer attempting to follow in the footsteps of her father, the radical political philosopher William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), and mother Mary Wollstonecraft, the writer of the influential feminist text A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, who died just days after giving birth to her daughter. The teenage Mary spends her time messing around with her stepsister Claire (Bel Powley) and reading ghost stories, much to the disdain of her unloving stepmother Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggatt).

Mary Shelley (2017)

Sent away to Scotland, Mary meets dashing poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), already a literary prodigy at the age of 21. The two become clandestine lovers while Percy works as assistant to Mary’s father. Soon however, scandal erupts and the couple, accompanied by Claire, set off on a journey that eventually leads them to the Swiss chateau of eccentric Romantic poet Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge). Trapped there during a stormy summer – the so-called ‘Year Without a Summer’ of 1816 – Byron initiates a ghost story writing competition that inspires Mary to begin work on her legendary novel.

Director Haifaa Al-Mansour and screenwriter Emma Jensen smartly recognise the contemporary relevance of Mary Shelley, playing up her feminist inheritance from Mary Wollstonecraft and highlighting the sexism implicit in the attempts made to credit her (anonymously published) work to her husband. The film is especially scathing towards Percy Shelley, characterised as a libertine fuckboy who pounces on Mary’s progressive views on relationships – ‘people should live and love as they wish’, she declares – only to betray her when he reveals a total disregard for the emotional fallout of his bohemian lifestyle.

Less convincing is the decision to cast pretty posh boys Douglas Booth and Tom Sturridge as Shelley and Byron. Both roles are poorly penned and wildly overacted, not to mention terribly costumed; heavy eyeliner and flamboyant suits give Byron the air of a ’70s rock star, while Shelley looks like he’s an inch of frosted tips away from joining an early ’00s boyband. The film spends too much time on this ridiculous double act and not enough with its protagonist, whose writing process – which should be the heart of the film – is relegated to a limp montage of quill on paper (inky CGI tendrils on the pages let us know her writing is Edgy and Dark).

Fanning gives a self-conscious and often unconvincing performance, losing her accent whenever her character becomes angry. (It’s nowhere near as bad as that of Maisie Williams, whose small role as Mary’s friend Isabel showcases a truly dreadful Scottish accent.) Despite a running time of two hours, Al-Mansour’s film feels like an oversimplified version of a fascinating story. Topped off with smatterings of lazy writing, uninspired cinematography and an oppressively awful score, it’s disappointing that the film manages to turn Mary Shelley’s exciting, tragic youth into something quite dull.

The film is probably best appreciated as a biographical reading of Frankenstein, dutifully ticking off the aspects of Mary’s personal life – her mother’s death, her mistreatment by Percy, a bizarre sideshow display of a frog being re-animated – that may have inspired the influential novel. Who knows, it may prove a valuable resource to A-level English students in the future. Frankly, however, I’ve seen lecture PowerPoints on Mary Shelley that are more cinematic than Mary Shelley.

Mary Shelley is released in cinemas July 6th, distributed by Curzon Artificial Eye. 

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