Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an influential book that continues to inspire film-makers and enchant pop culture centuries later. While Frankenstein’s monster has become a horror icon, often mistakenly referred to as Frankenstein, little is known of the author who originally brought the fictional creature and timeless story to life. Mary Shelley is a biographical romance drama and origins story of famed author, whose published name serves as a mask for a fascinating entry into the world of writing.
Taking us back to her teens, we learn of a young creative stunted by her position within her family, society and the famed writers who surrounded her. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin grew up in an age where women weren’t ordinarily given an education or the chance to contribute to academia. Her story is powerful, rising up against the patriarchal tide of the early 1800s and demonstrating her prowess as an author, despite being discriminated against for her sex and age. Centring on her relationship with Percy Shelley, the drama unfolds as we learn of their tempestuous relationship and scandalous reputation within the community.
While the film starts off quite slowly, dulled by its limited colour palette and low-key natural lighting, it ironically comes to life as Mary finds inspiration for her novel, Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. The prickly, hedonistic and hard-living environment are what compel her, making it necessary for us to go through these stages for a fuller comprehension of the relationships that shaped and inspired her, under the direction of Haifaa Al-Mansour.
“I’m Frankenstein’s author…”
Solid performances from a young cast keep the fires burning and Elle Fanning is blossoming into a terrific actress. Her face is complex, she carries a wistful innocence and has an elemental flow to her performances, which continues as Mary Shelley. She’s supported by Bel Powley, who is best known for the uncomfortable The Diary of a Teenage Girl, whose bright eyes and sickly sweet presence add to the murky atmosphere. Douglas Booth is a more fragile version of James Franco, delivering a charmingly reprehensible young Percy Shelley.
This is a beautifully filmed biopic, reminiscent of Bright Star in its artistic and poetic edge. It also has shades of the period drama, In Secret, in terms of its gloomy and somewhat poisonous disposition. Then there are clichés paralleling the typical writer’s journey biopic, using fantasy elements that echo the Dickens film, The Man who Invented Christmas, in terms of the family dynamics, professional rivalry and period setting.
While a slow-burning drama, it does improve steadily and finds its stride once the idea for Frankenstein is hatched. Mary Shelley is probably too slow-moving for most, but has a youthful zest at its core, not unlike Pride and Prejudice and Zombies… minus the zombies. Shelley’s back story is fascinating, powerful and layered – providing a wonderful behind-the-scenes to one of the most adapted pieces of literature in history.
The bottom line: Gloomy