The latest account of the creation of one the greatest works of literature and an incredibly important keystone of the horror genre as we know it is attractive looking but ultimately disappointing, rather like some of the cast.
Young Mary (Fanning) is the daughter of a prominent, but less than opulent, writer and bookstore owner William Godwin (Dillane), and is often spending her time reading salacious horror stories and attempting to write her own rather than helping out around the shop and house. This is more of an issue to her stepmother (Joanne Froggatt) who recognises the rebellious and free-thinking spirit of her mother - the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft - and she is shipped off to friends in Scotland. It’s here where she meets the dashing young poet Percy Shelley (Booth). When she has to return home, Shelley enters their household as a protégé of Godwin and they continue their affair. When her father finds out, she runs away with the poet and continues her passion for writing.
It’s at Lake Geneva at the lavish home of the depraved Lord Byron (Sturridge) that Mary, her stepsister Claire (Powley), Shelley and Dr John Polidori (Hardy) spend several months of decadence before a light-hearted task is set to see who can create the most terrifying story. Influenced by the people around them, Polidori and Mary both come up trumps but the outcome isn’t as straightforward as either would have hoped.
While previous adaptations of the story of behind the writing of Frankenstein have relished in the Gothic macabre, director Haifaa Al-Mansour - making her first English language movie - takes a more Merchant Ivory approach and focuses more on the emotions that inspired the 19-year-old to create one of literature’s most enduring creations. Although one of the problems is that the story doesn’t go far enough into the excesses and debauchery of those she chose to spend her time. Percy Shelley is reduced to a Hugh Grant-ish fop with little in the way of characterisation and the alleged depravity of Bryon is hinted at rather than fully explored. Mary, however, is depicted as a woman ahead of her time and even this isn’t truly explored.
Although the film is two hours long, it moves along at far too zippy a pace to really get to grips with the themes and encounters that formed Mary’s imagination and emotional creation of the creature in her famous novel. We’re told it rather than really feel it. The subject would be better served (and no doubt received), perhaps, as a Sunday night miniseries as no matter how wonderful this looks, it never gets to grips with the interesting and complex nature of Mary and her story.
There are a few nods to the fantastical element of Mary’s imagination, but perhaps the approach taken by the forgotten Lewis Carrol biopic Dreamchild (1985) would have better served the subject as the author clearly saw herself as the creature of her creation: lonely, outcast, and neglected.
Elle Fanning is, however, magnificent as Mary, and the rest of the cast do admirably but never quite get the chance to shine in their own right. For all our misgivings, it’s a beautiful-looking film that, with more focus or perhaps further space to tell its story, could have been much better.
MARY SHELLEY / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR / SCREENPLAY: EMMA JENSEN / STARRING: ELLE FANNING, MAISIE WILLIAMS, BEN HARDY, DOUGLAS BOOTH, BEL POWLEY, TOM STURRIDGE, STEPHEN DILLANE / RELEASE DATE: JULY 6TH
Expected Rating 8 out of 10