Mary Shelley was just a teenager when she wrote ‘Frankenstein’, a novel that would come to define the gothic genre. A true prodigy, she deserves much better than this lifeless biopic charting how she came to write her most famous work – despite the best efforts of Elle Fanning in the title role. As young Mary, Fanning passionately captures the spirit of her character as battles against the sexism of the era.
Too often, though, the script has this dynamic woman merely reacting to the men surrounding her – including her husband Percy Bysshe Shelly (Douglas Booth) and Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge, going full panto) – rather than taking charge of her own destiny. In reality, her life was full of drama, loss and betrayal, but ‘Mary Shelley’ largely eschews her complexities.
Instead, montages of her scribbling away at her masterpiece and soapy scenes of Percy’s courtship draw the majority of the focus. The latter is presented by director Haifaa al-Mansour with the pre-watershed sheen of a Sunday afternoon telly drama. We’re left to wonder how he convinced Mary to run off with him, on the promise of free verse and even freer love, when it’s rendered with all the passion of a bath sponge. Al-Mansour made the milestone feminist drama ‘Wadjda’, but here he’s taken a much safer tack. ‘Mary Shelley’ would have been infinitely more enthralling if he’d taken a leaf out of her book and got under the skin of one of literature’s most remarkable women. n Joseph Walsh