Haifaa al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first female film director, made a splash in 2012 with her powerful Wadjda, but her follow-up is a different matter altogether: an overly epic costume biopic with name players and shoehorned feminist subtexts.
That’s a pity as Mary Shelley (1797-1851), author of Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, should have her life story told properly, especially as other films about the creation of Frankenstein are more interested in the bed-hopping (like Haunted Summer) or the pretentious blokes that surrounded her (like the ludicrous Gothic).
This production offers prestigious British actors, but American Elle Fanning plays Mary, and she’s miscast, particularly when the speechifying begins.
A teenage Mary Godwin is seen writing ghost stories in a cemetery and dashing home to confront her freethinking dad William (Stephen Dillane) and mean stepmother Mary Clairmont (Joanne Froggatt). Mary is haunted by the mother she never knew (her mum Mary Wollstonecraft was a proto-feminist who died shortly after this Mary’s birth) and fed up with the sexism of the day. She then meets young, swoony poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth) and is immediately smitten, despite his already considerable bad reputation.
Mary’s desperate-for-excitement half-sister Claire (Bel Powley) also gets in on the act when Mary runs away with Percy, and it’s Claire who winds up ill-advisedly getting together with the prancingly camp Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), partially as Mary’s too busy being mistreated by Percy. The Geneva summer where Mary is encouraged to write a ghost story is naturally depicted, as is the fallout from the creation of Frankenstein: how publishers and her dad refused to believe she’d written it; the threat that Percy would be credited for it; and the heavy-handed suggestion that the tale was all about her dreadful life with Percy, which leads to long, phony-sounding dialogue scenes where Elle’s Mary gets furious in a manner that probably never happened.
Following up Wadjda was always going to be difficult and surely al-Mansour deserved something stronger and less stodgy than this, as much as Mary deserves her story to be told without her eventual husband stealing the limelight again. After all, she wrote Frankenstein, and who outside academia remembers him these days? Percy who?
Rated M. Mary Shelley is in cinemas now.