After bursting onto the world cinema scene with Wadja, Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first woman from Saudi Arabia to direct a feature film, returns with her English-language debut, a period piece/biopic about the author who penned the famed Gothic novel Frankenstein. Focused mostly on the time after the aspiring writer ran away from home at the age of 16 with the poet Percy Shelley and her younger stepsister Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley presents a story of heartache that would inform the writing of her famous book. It’s a low key drama filled with layers of romantic turmoil that nonetheless inspires the writer’s dark debut novel when she was just 18 years old.
Al-Mansour, whose first film celebrated the will of a 10-year-old girl in a society that hardly affords women any freedom, seems to be an excellent fit to explore the creative will of a 16-year-old girl in a society that oppresses women. However, nineteenth century England and feminist expression is a difficult line to walk. As with other period films dealing with such themes (see my reviews for Augustine and Mozart’s Sister), representation of the will of female expression feels muted against forces at work to stifle it. The usually expressive actress Elle Fanning gives a subdued if appropriate performance as the aspiring writer. Images of her scribbling in the graveyard while leaning on her mother’s headstone under dreary gray clouds are emblematic of the film’s atmosphere and drama. While often beautifully designed, the film is modulated very low, including the film’s dark cinematography.
Because of “Game of Thrones,” Maisie Williams gets high billing in the marketing of the film, but her appearance as Isabel Baxter, a friend Mary makes after her father William Godwin (Stephen Dillane) sends her to Scotland to clear her mind, is very brief and treated with not much significance, except to instill in Mary a desire to leave home. Oh, and she introduces Mary to Percy, who entertains Isabel’s family at a dinner party by free-styling verse inspired by meeting Mary. Bel Powley, the breakthrough lead of the 2015 film The Diary of a Teenage Girl, deserves more credit in a role that is easy to overlook as the mooning stepsister Claire. Her admiration for the steely Mary and clumsiness with feelings for her own writer/man crush, Lord Byron (a snake-like Ben Hardy), is an id-like thing of tragic romantic consequences. In fact, the most intense drama in the film is the subplot of Byron and Claire, not to mention the pathetic casual collateral damage of Byron’s housemate and fifth wheel of Thomas Hogg (Jack Hickey). Byron’s antics could make a more intense and scandalous film on its own.
Beyond the repressive feminism, really, what the film seems to reveal is the pain of polyamory when communication and feelings aren’t on the same level. As much as these people strain for freedom in a time where one could be ostracized just for being born out of wedlock, they tangle with how to be honest to what they want against the comfortable pressures of fitting in with society. When Mary and Claire run off with Percy, they set out for something free and beautiful in theory, but from the start, their efforts ring hollow. While slumming it with Percy, Claire and Mary can loudly recite scandalous poetry while chugging wine from the bottle, yet Percy appears deflated. It’s the tensions between desire and decorum that seem to motivate him most. When the decorum is stripped away, it all feels rather uninspired. It’s a subtle bit of drama that is played out in a series of heartbreaking lessons in a quiet film with appropriately low-key but transporting design, from costumes to sets to language and even some dreamy music of piano and cooing spooky vocals. Ultimately, Mary Shelley falls victim to its own restraints, but it also can’t be faulted for its complex and honest efforts to transmit its dark and gloomy story.
Mary Shelley runs 121 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens in our South Florida area exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., follow the film’s official Facebook page. IFC Films sent us a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.