This poor movie is not doing well at the box office nor in reviews—and sadly might never get here to local theaters. It is a sad state of affairs that fine movies must suffer against the tripe that plays constantly at the multi-plexes to audiences who can only watch endless sequels, car chases, cartoon movies, etc. There is nothing wrong with this movie unless your mind is jacked by the endless afore-mentioned fare. Mary Shelley (played excellently by Elle Fanning—still so young she needed a tutor for her school lessons on the set.) tells the story of teenager Mary Godwin, who runs off at age 16 with the wild famous romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth). They are a scandal since Shelley is already married with a child or two (this is not explained—another woman with a child?). Soon he is disowned and the couple—now with Mary’s half-sister Claire (Bel Powley)—alternate between luxurious homes set up by Percey’s financial fraud or in complete hovels when they are running from the creditors or the law.
The big myth is that Mary conceived the idea of her novel Frankenstein, while the three were “guests” at Byron’s Lake Geneva Swiss chateau. They were self-invited by Claire who chased after Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), another romantic poet even more debauched and famous than Shelley: Byron would have sex with about anything (even his horse?!), doing and sharing every drug he can get his hands on, and has already impregnated Claire and doesn’t give a damn about her. Bad things happen to Claire at this juncture.
Mary is the daughter of early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Women, still current and brilliant, and who died shortly after Mary was born. Her father Charles Godwin (Stephen Dillane) was also a respected novelist (his book Caleb Williams, a gothic novel) and philosopher, who also ran a dignified bookstore. Mary aspires to do something worthwhile like her parents, but has run off with a hoodlum, druggie, drunk, person of no moral ground. This is her story, of how she suffers for her romantic “free love” rebellion, the conflict between running off with Percy Shelley and her desire to live up to the education she received from her father. Why isn’t this theme enough to excite the critics? We also have run-away sex, drugs, wild ideas, both poets wrote poetry worthy of being taught in schools even nowadays, and both died at young ages—wow, right up there with the Doors’ Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin’s brief, flaming genius and then early death. And yet, this is the crux of the problem, I think.
There exists a movie from 1986 called “Gothic” by the imaginative, flamboyant director Ken Russell, that gives a more direct account of the Lake Geneva, Bryon’s Swiss chateau, time when the drugged, spoiled poets have a séance and challenge themselves to come up with ghost stories. This movie really focuses on the elements that would appeal to prurient interests! Vincent Canby of the NY Times wrote: “Don’t go to Gothic expecting to be elevated. This is no reverie. It’s a series of gaudy shock effects, an anthology of horror-film mannerisms that looks like a 60’s LSD trip. If Gothic says anything about Byron, Shelley and their friends, it’s just that anyone who trusted them with a summer rental had to be out of his mind.” (Canby, Vincent (10 April 1987). “FILM: SHELLEY, BYRON AND FRIENDS, IN ‘GOTHIC'”. The New York Times. Retrieved 25 November 2017.) He has that right! This movie is so over the top—check out the trailers on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haS7s4MI0mI
As farfetched as was “Gothic,” that movie still recognized that Mary was more motivated to write her novel by the loss of her baby than anything else. “Mary Shelley” presents the baby’s death as a result of fleeing the luxury house escaping from creditors and ending up in a hovel—during a storm, making the sick baby even sicker and then it died. Mary has been betrayed by Percy and is heartbroken over the baby’s death. This movie tells Mary’s story without the exploitation of the hedonistic focus of the poets themselves. And that might be the problem. “Mary Shelley” is too tame, too realistic, too focused on the female point of view, god forbid! Written by screenwriter Emma Jensen and director Ms. Al-Mansour, this movie looks at this material with an almost #Me Too sensibility.
The film is beautiful to look upon with Regency gowns and various lovely English settings. The movie tells an engaging story, there are no flaws really, and yet –maybe the marketing is to blame? Too tame? Too academic? Too female focused? Hypocrites, these critics and I suspect we can predict the audiences too. We’ll be lucky if the Carolina and/or the Chelsea Theaters book this film.
Just as the character/creature Frankenstein has been mutated into a monster or a joke, this story of Mary Shelley has been warped by the scandal of the poets and the injustice of the times, that her novel was first published anonymously with the pretense that Percy Shelley was the author! Only later because of the influence of her father and some decency by Shelley himself, does Frankenstein get published with her name as the author. Another result from the Lake Geneva craziness was a novel called The Vampyre by Dr. John Polidori (Ben Hardy), personal physician and lover of (?) Byron, whose book is published with Lord Byron taking the credit. Polidari doesn’t end up any better than the male poets—or Claire. Mary Shelley will outlive them all, but at what price, glory?
The Frankenstein movie most faithful to Mary’s book is the Ken Curtis “Frankenstein” from 1973, depicting how sad and miserable is the creature. This careless creation by the mad doctor Victor Frankenstein was a cobbled together body electrified into life—only to be rejected and abandoned by his creator. Hence Mary’s story reflecting her own betrayal and abandonment and the death of her baby. It’s the emotion, not the séance induced ghost story.
This correction to that entire saga is a long time coming and deserves to be honored. Still, I have to admit it doesn’t quit have the sparkle and love of something like “RBG” (the showing I attended generated applause by the audience. How often do you see that?!). There was something a little sloggy about “Mary Shelley” and it probably has to do with the misconceptions in our minds about the actual book Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus and its mutations. Elevate yourself from the big myths with the bad boys getting credit for her book. Some say she wrote the first science fiction book, as well as the gothic elements and the underlying sadness. I say see this movie—if you can find it. I suspect it will not be honored as it should be.