Icons deserve movies and Mary Shelley is nothing if not an icon. She wrote Frankenstein, one of the earliest works of science fiction, when she was a teenager. She was the daughter of feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and anarchist William Godwin; married the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and was mates with the likes of Byron and Coleridge. Her life is a stranger-than-fiction story of radical ideas, personal scandal, science, romance and tragedy. Lots and lots of tragedy.
So turning even Mary Shelley’s early life – her family, romance with Percy Shelley and up to the writing and publication of her most famous work – is no easy task. Director Haifaa Al Mansour is best known for Wadjda, her totally charming film about a 10 year-old girl in modern day Saudi Arabia, sticking it to the men trying to control her. Here, Al Mansour channels that same creative, defiant female spirit but with a little more of the earnestness you’d expect from a drama set in English society 200 years ago.
As Mary Shelley, Elle Fanning precisely turns on ethereal, combative, playful and melancholic modes as and when required. Her subtle glances, smirks and eye scrunches (re)animate otherwise predictable chunks of Emma Jensen’s script. There’s a brilliant touch where one moment Shelley is smugly declaring she “fears not God and his henchmen” as she and Percy (Douglas Booth) glug wine in a church and the next, Fanning switches to the look of a petrified deer as she hears an unsuspecting priest walking in.
At its best, the film gives space to the multiple strands of Shelley’s influences, interests and inspirations from her early love of ghost stories to contemporary experiments in galvanism and reanimation of human corpses and the very real experience of being cast out from polite society. At its worst, when the parallels between genius doctor/poet and abandoned monster/woman are spelled out in no uncertain terms, it feels more like a gussied up Wikipedia page.
The lush production is full of the usual fine carriages, intricate costumes and decked out drawing rooms. There’s also some wonderful writer porn in the form of candlelit quill scribbling, pensive pencil twirling and impromptu, hyper eloquent poetry performances. Tom Sturridge is particularly delicious as Lord Byron though the film does take too long to get to the infamous ghost story challenge, which prompted Mary to begin work on Frankenstein, at Byron’s house in Geneva.
It’s here that Al Mansour fully embraces the gothic vibes you’ve no doubt been waiting for, with languorous zooms, macabre oil paintings, nightmares in the night and a storm raging outside. We never verge into camp, though, this Villa Diodati is a world away from Ken Russell’s bizarre, OTT 1986 horror Gothic! which incidentally is worth a spin if you’re in the mood. In fact, what we get is a series of quiet, genuinely moving scenes between the introverted, abandoned or otherwise abused characters – Shelley herself, Byron’s guest Dr. Polidori and Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley who is brilliant on the sidelines throughout).
Images of spilled ink, the moon, forests at night are poetic enough to avoid offending fans of the masterpiece in question, though one misjudged montage does condense two years of work into a few frames. A more ambiguous ending might also have been more satisfying, especially for everyone who knows the turmoil and tragedies (plural) yet to come for Mary not-yet-then Shelley.
Still, the sight of a leather bound Frankenstein in her father’s bookshop – spoiler alert, she gets it published – will thrill struggling writers, ambitious women and lonely sci-fi nerds in equal measure. The themes of isolation, neglect and longing for compassion in the book feel just as vital to many people 200 years later. As Claire Clairmont remarks to Mary Shelley, “more than should, I expect.”