For a film that chronicles the rise of a creator obsessed with reanimating the dead, “Mary Shelley” is utterly lifeless. It contains a sparkling and startlingly raw performance by Elle Fanning, but Haifaa Al-Mansour’s disappointing followup to her remarkable “Wadjda” doesn’t push beyond paint-by-numbers biopic posturing, with revelations as insightful as the “Frankenstein” author’s Wikipedia page. The film documents the portion of Shelley’s life dominated by her romance with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and meanders toward the subsequent creation of her signature novel. As the budding writer hammers away at her craft, the film’s own structure and style weaken into nothing more than a thin fever dream.
Heightened emotions rule “Mary Shelley”; even the earliest moments of Shelley’s life saw tremendous tragedy. We first meet young Mary (then Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) as she dawdles by her long-dead mother’s gravesite, her lone place of respite and calm — entirely weird, superbly Gothic, and apparently historically accurate. Mary’s family tree was something to behold: Her mother Mary (who died days after she was born) was an early proponent of feminism, equality, and free love, while her father William was a lauded writer and founding father of the anarchist movement. But those wild days are gone and teen Mary is trapped in a tight-fisted home ruled by her overbearing stepmother (Joanne Froggatt), her downtrodden father (Stephen Dillane), and a pair of siblings who seem to adore her (including Bel Powley as her stepsister Claire).
Mary is always scribbling away, cooking up stories of a decidedly Gothic bent, something that Fanning embodies with such ease. However, her stepmother despises that passion and she’s soon shipped off to a family friend’s home in Scotland. There she meets Percy Shelley, and Al-Mansour pushes “Mary Shelley” to the next level of heavy-handed Gothic insanity. (Just wait until Tom Sturridge’s Lord Byron arrives, wearing more eyeliner than a young Ozzy Osbourne). The pair meet and woo with words and a generous dollop of meaningful glances, which Fanning delivers with heart-pounding intensity. Then, the lovers separate when Mary called home to see to an apparently ailing Claire.
“Mary Shelley” is as preoccupied with Percy Shelley as its namesake, and while we’re meant to understand that Mary’s real passion is writing (cue more scribbling), her obsession with Percy consumes her to the breaking point. Emma Jensen’s script (with additional material from Al-Mansour) hammers the importance (and craziness) of Mary’s familial ties, a theme that adds necessary dimension to the more ill-fated aspects of the romance. In one of the film’s few well-tuned revelatory scenes, Mary and Claire discover that Percy is actually married with a kid (he actually had two, just one of the film’s random snips to Mary’s life story) and the young writer must choose between passion and propriety. That she chooses Percy, the sort of thing her mother would (and did!) do, destroys her father and their relationship. Nothing is as vicious as gossip, nothing as precious as reputation, and Mary tosses both over, shocked to discover that her once-radical father can’t abide by them.
Shelley’s unconventionality and refusal to play by society’s rules were some of the writer’s defining characteristics, and while “Mary Shelley” looks ready to embrace them — she was a revolutionary, sprung from revolutionaries! — the film instead opts to zoom more closely into her relationship with Percy who always scans as a total cad. Fanning and Booth’s early chemistry melts away, and soon “Mary Shelley” is nothing but a thin soap opera, Mary mewling and begging for Percy, Percy acting like a complete bastard who deserves every bad thing that comes his way. Built around their love story, “Mary Shelley” burns out, and its last hour limps on to the main show: Mary actually writing something of substance.
The inevitable influences of her “Frankenstein” are modestly sprinkled throughout the first half, anchored by her slow-simmering interest in the possibility of reanimation and her life-long bent towards the creepy and scary. But by its second act, presumably once Al-Mansour realized that no Mary Shelley biopic would be remotely complete with actually showing off the creation of “Frankenstein,” the film turns towards unwieldy and bizarre, all dramatic rainstorms and overwrought nightmares and on-the-nose scripting. Once landed at Byron’s Lake Geneva house, where Mary finally gave into her desire to write “Frankenstein,” as kickstarted by a now-infamous literary parlor game, much of the film’s emotional force remains fixated on Mary and Percy, not the real achievement she’s churning out.
Mary’s greatest act remains muddled, beholden to both lifeless plotting (that scribbling? it gets considerably less urgent with every scene) and Percy’s bad behavior. Even that never amounts to much, because while it’s grating to watch Mary sink so often under Percy’s own problems (though it’s accurate to their story and the time), Al-Mansour squanders a final chance to put Mary and her work back in the spotlight. The film ends on a limp, cookie-cutter final sequence that does little to either laud Mary or to put her into the appropriate context. It’s a lifeless portrayal of a vivid life, capped off with the kind of disingenuous end that Shelley would have smarted at seeing on the page.
“Mary Shelley” had its world premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.