We all like to have explanations, to understand where people are coming from. This is certainly the case with a biopic – they afford the opportunity to get to know, even if in fictionalized fashion, how an author came up with their ideas and how their lives influenced their work… or vice versa.
What director Haifaa al-Mansour and screenplay author Emma Jensen (with additional writing by al-Mansour) offer in “Mary Shelley” is an emotional portrait of the woman who wrote “Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus.” It doesn’t bother with facts and details so much as it does with Mary’s feelings surrounding her tumultuous relationship with both her family and her lover, Percy Shelley. It is a difficult film with which to engage as it is nearly impossible to comprehend what Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning) sees in Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth).
Shelley (as he is called for much of the film) is portrayed as a wretched man, one interested in nothing so much as his ability to sleep with women and, allegedly, tear down the state. He is a rebel who is afforded the opportunity to be a rebel because of his family’s money and reputation, as well as the money of his friends.
Ostensibly the film is about Mary’s attempt to be her own person, to be acknowledged in her own right as an author and an equal to Shelley. She struggles against the shackles society puts on her, but the vast majority of the film cares not for society’s shackles on her as much as it does the ones Shelley puts on her. But, Mary does that to herself. The world would have her not get involved with Shelley, but she insists upon it.
And, why? What makes her fall in love with this man?
The movie offers no reason beyond his looks and attention making her swoon. For virtually the entirety of the film’s run, Shelley is shown to be little more than a scoundrel, and Mary’s desires for him a crush gone too far.
What then can the viewer make of such a work, a movie that relies upon emotion but makes it exceptionally difficult for the viewer to be a part of those feelings or even understand their origin? It does not leave a lot.
Fanning is undeniably good here offering up a woman who believes in herself and life at all costs. However, she gets little to play off of. It isn’t that Booth is bad, but his character is not a deep one. Nearly everyone else flits in and out of the movie, with the most constant presence being Mary’s half-sister, Claire (Bel Powley). Unfortunately, much like with Shelley, she is at best two-dimensional.
The script, and consequently Fanning, end up needing to rely on a “women like bad boys” trope. It is difficult to have Mary be a fully realized, engaging, dynamic character and the center of a wonderful movie when everyone surrounding her is paper thin. It makes for a frustrating two hour endeavor.
The costumes are great as are the sets, but there is an emotional distance which the film can never bridge. The conclusion of it all, and the sources of inspiration for Mary Shelley’s novel, are too silly as presented to make one really accept what the film offers. That isn’t to say that the film is wrong in its assertions as much as it fails to back them up. There is too little for one to hang their hat on, too much unclear about the characters and their families and their lives to give the viewer the necessary footing to accept this history. The beauty of the film, and it is a great film to look at, does not make up for its lack of depth and clarity.
photo credit: IFC Films