Mary Shelley: Classic Feminist Novel Inspires So-So Feminist(ish) Movie

By Liam Lacey

Rating: C

The new movie, Mary Shelley, has an attractive Masterpiece Theatre sheen in its production values, and the quality of reliable stage-trained performances we expect of English costume dramas. American actress Elle Fanning maintains her accent and fits in credibly as the bookish, rebellious teen literary prodigy.

The story covers a few years in Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s life, from her mid-teens when she first meets her eventual husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, through the early years of their tumultuous romance and through the publication of her novel, Frankenstein


Saudi Arabian director Haifa Al-Mansour made history as the first woman to direct a feature film in her native country with her delightful 2012 drama, Wadjda, about a girl who has the temerity to want a bicycle. 

With this, her second feature, Al-Mansour pays tribute to another young feminist pioneer, the 18-year-old author of romantic literature’s most famous monster story. In this case, the goal is artistic respect.

Mary Shelley aspires to be a kind of intellectual romance, not only tracing the author’s life but soaking in the ideas of the time. Here, unfortunately, is where we hit a snag: Emma Jensen’s script, which settles for mixture of melodrama and rampant over-explaining. 

We first meet Mary as the bookworm teenaged daughter of philosopher and bookseller William Godwin (Stephen Dillane). She lives in a crowded home with her feisty stepsister Claire Claimont (Bel Powley), and her over-bearing stepmother (Joanne Froggatt). Mary’s heroine is her fiercely intellectual, scandalous mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the proto-feminist book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, who died days after Mary’s birth.  

Sent to live with friends in Scotland to avoid fighting with her stepmother, Mary meets the young poet, Shelley (the moistly handsome Douglas Booth). Back in London, he shows up as a paying apprentice to Mary’s father, but with ulterior motives. The couple share their first kiss atop Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave, where Mary likes to go to read. They decide to elope together, taking Mary’s half-sister, Claire, who is equally ready for scandal.

Young love proves challenging. Mary’s father disowns her, Shelley is broke, and the three of them find themselves living in temporary rooms, on the run from creditors. Worse, Shelley actually adheres to his principles about free love, and calls her a hypocrite for rejecting the sexual advances of one of his friends. It gets worse: she discovers Shelley already has a wife and child. Then Mary has a baby, which promptly dies. 

 And we still have more than a year to go before the famous night in Lord Byron’s rented villa in Geneva that led to the creation of Frankenstein. (For an entire film on that evening, see Ken Russell’s gaudy 1986 drama, Gothic). 

Lord Byron, who was called “mad, bad and dangerous to know” by one lover, had a reputation for cutting a swath, but it’s difficult to believe he was as weird as the performance by actor Tom Sturridge, who wears copious guy-liner, sniffs people’s hair as a way of greeting, and in general, swans about like Dr. Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Between boozing and bon mots at the villa, the insufferable Byron proposes the famous contest to see who can come up with a good ghost story. Mary, incorporating some fashionable enthusiasms for electricity and speculations about animating corpses, comes up with the tale of the doctor and his creature. (Neither Byron nor Shelley come up with anything, though Byron later plagiarizes another guest’s vampire story.)

As the film would have it, the novel’s focus on the abused creature incorporates Mary's experiences of grief, rejection, and her anger at the arrogance of men. In the case of the novel’s protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, he’s arrogant enough to believe he can produce new life without the involvement of a woman. That's one of the reasons Frankenstein has been plausibly read, since the 1970s, as a feminist book and provides some of the impetus behind this movie.

The film’s final half-hour is about the writing (lots of voice-over excerpts) and the anonymous publication of the book, and Mary Shelley's eventual recognition as the author, initially credited to her famous husband. (It’s not an entirely settled issue: A 2009 Random House edition created controversy by listing Percy Bysshe Shelley as co-author). 

When one patronizing publisher suggests such a young woman could not have written the book herself, Mary snaps back: “You dare to question a woman’s ability to experience loss, death, betrayal all of which in this present in this story, in my story….”

Her speech is intended to be inspiring though it has a paradoxical effect of reducing her work to a first-person emotional record rather than emphasizing her ability to synthesize powerful ideas, which have continued to resonate for the past two centuries.

Mary Shelley. Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. Written by Emma Jensen. Starring Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, and Maisie Williams. Now playing in Toronto (Cineplex Varsity) and opening July 20 in Montreal (Cineplex Forum) and Vancouver (Fifth Ave); July 27 in Edmonton (Princess Edmonton), Regina (Rainbow Regina), Saskatoon (Roxy Saskatoon), and Victoria (Vic Theatre); and August 3 in Ottawa (Bytowne).