Back in 2012, I was bowled over by a Saudi Arabian film that told the simple tale of a young girl trying to purchase a bike for herself, that was also used to highlight the prejudices and double standards women of that country are subjected to on a daily basis. While the subtext was heavy, the story itself was told with the lightest of touches, giving viewers a door to be entertained by this little girl's plight whilst at the same time putting a focus on big issues within Saudi Arabia. The film was “Wadjda” and it was written and (beautifully) directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, who with this film became the first female director to shoot a feature in Saudi Arabia. From that moment, I have kept my eyes peeled for Al-Mansour's follow up, which turned out to be “Mary Shelley”. Such is my love for “Wadjda” that I had no hesitation in putting Al-Mansour's sophomore effort on my list of most anticipated features of 2017, back when the film had the more poetic title “A Storm in the Stars”. It has been a while coming in terms of release, but the film (now branded with the unimaginative title “Mary Shelley”) has now seen the light of day, so has it lived up to the potential that Haifaa Al-Mansour showed in her directorial debut?
As would seem quite obvious, “Mary Shelley” is a bio-pic dedicated to the woman who ended up writing one of the most famous horror novels of all time, “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus”. The daughter of famous writers herself, she seemed destined to become an author but while her parents dabbled in more “respected” forms of writing, Mary was drawn towards darker fare. She was born as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, to mother Mary Wollstonecraft and father William Godwin, both who were philosophers and novelists in their own right. Sadly Mary's mother passed away soon after she was born, leaving her to be brought up by her father. She had a love of literature, and always wanted to write but it wasn't until she met famous poet Percy Shelley, that her life headed down the path it was always destined to. With the scandal that came with being together with a married man, Mary and Percy's life was tough. It was filled with sadness, betrayal, death, loss as well as love, and it was the culmination of all this, of a life lived, that saw Mary create her novel and famous monster.
I must admit that I was surprised that Haifaa Al-Mansour chose this project as her follow up to “Wadjda”, but this is mainly because all I knew about Mary Shelley before this film was that she created Frankenstein. I was unaware of her early struggles in life and the struggles she found at trying to get her work published simply because she was a woman. Knowing these elements now, they are an extension of the themes Al-Mansour tackled in her earlier film, although set in a different time and place, which makes her choice to tackle this story more obvious, almost like a natural progression. What is interesting about Mary Shelley is that the creation of her book is definitely the high point of her life, and obviously what she is remembered for, but without leading the life she did or suffered through the things she did, perhaps it would never have been written. You come to understand that her monster is anything but, and that he represents the abandonment, loss, pain, betrayal and unhappiness that Mary herself felt during the hardships of growing up, falling in love and living with Percy. Because of all this, he is a tragic character rather than a monster.
In other reviews for this film, I have read that a lot of people find the second half of “Mary Shelley” to be much stronger than the first, and while that is true as this is where she brings to life her creation, the first half is actually more important in that you need to understand how she lived her life, what tragedy's she endured and what she had to fight through and against, in order to see where her head was at when she began writing her novel and what she was trying to express within it. While it is true that her life may not have been that much different than most women living during that time, and thus not the most dramatically impactful, like her sister says in the film, the book gives voice to so many women and to what they felt during that time, that it makes it important.
Haifaa Al-Mansour has created quite the handsome film in “Mary Shelley” with some gorgeous cinematography and some lovely production design that transports us right back to 18th century London. We visit the opulence of high society, where excess seems to never be out of style, to the lower classes and modest dwellings of the poorer side of London when Mary and Percy are forced to live in shame, cut off from their family's wealth due to their love affair. Both classes have been defined well in what appears to be accurate period detail. Also Mary's brief stay in Scotland has been lovingly rendered as well, and gives a great counterpoint in the quieter lifestyle that she fell in love with while there. As good as Al-Mansour's work is on “Mary Shelley”, make no mistake about it, this is Elle Fanning's film. She is simply amazing, and had to be for the film to work at its best. Initially I was worried that Fanning's age may have seen her struggle at convincing audiences of the kind of deep emotions that Shelley felt or the emotional turmoils that she was struggling through, but Fanning is amazing and nails every moment. It is actually shocking to think that Mary Shelley herself was in fact as young as Elle Fanning (or younger) when she went through all of this in reality. It feels like a big step up for Fanning, almost like she has finally stepped in and embraced an adult role completely and she totally convinces. Personally, I found her performance incredibly powerful and increasingly heartbreaking as it went along, and I thought her scene at the end with Percy where she explains how she regrets nothing of her life up until that point, as a highlight. Speaking of “high”, god damn Elle Fanning is tall; she towers over her cast-mates. Douglas Booth is also excellent as Percy Shelley, both in being charismatic as the famous poet and lover, but also in being despicable and pathetic when being contradictory in his beliefs when it suits him, while at the same time accusing Mary of the same when she stands by hers. Percy is a man with many flaws, and Booth is never afraid to expose these to the audience, which makes him a fully rounded character. It goes without saying that Fanning and Booth bounce off each other fantastically, both during the happier times and the darker periods; the two have great chemistry.
The biggest issue I have with “Mary Shelley” was the casting of Bel Powley in the role of Claire, Mary's younger stepsister. I understand that Powley looks much younger than her real age, but she has got to stop taking these roles as each successive performance comes across more and more like she is a child talking in baby talk. If you are a parent and you have seen your child acting like this, you know how annoying it can be, but it is worse seeing a grown woman doing it. Her performance in this was, to me, akin to dragging fingernails along a chalk board, especially early on. As she ages in the film, it becomes a little more easier to handle, but I really was not a fan of Powley in this at all.
Overall, though, I was quite the fan of “Mary Shelley”; it opened my eyes to the kind of life she led and how this life defined the creation of the novel and monster that she became famous for. I also thought that the later scenes where she struggled to publish the novel, simply because she was female and it was not considered conducive with the subject matter within it, were fascinating. It is sad to think that she initially had to publish her novel “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus” anonymously, because of this. It is lucky though, that later editions restored her name as its creator and she became famous for it. Haifaa Al-Mansour's movie is a fitting tribute to this pioneering woman.