“I was brought into this world to be abandoned,” notes Mary Shelley deep into the flimsy but amusing film that bears her name. The line resonates, of course, and not just because this Mary Shelley, like the real one, lives a life of perpetual bereavement. For the English-major audience eager to soak in the teenage Shelley’s loss, and to see her wrench a masterpiece from the muck of it, that declaration will sound like exactly what it is: a thesis statement, the argument that the rest of the essay is crafted to support. Haifaa al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley certainly alerts us to the prominence of death in the young writer’s existence: Family members and eventually her own children die; we meet her at her mother’s grave, writing a ghost story; she’s enraptured by a morbidly theatrical display of science-entertainment in which the legs of a dead frog get electro-jolted into twitching. But, much like a paper by a student who has read the wiki but not the work, Mary Shelley marshals its evidence without revealing more, without connecting to the soul of the matter. Its Mary Shelley may walk and talk, kiss and rage, but she has no more of the true spark of life than that specimen in that lab.
That’s not necessarily the fault of the performers or the geniuses they’re impersonating. Elle Fanning, who stars, suggests a quietly thoughtful Shelley, a woman whose life might prove scandalous but only because she refuses to deny herself what she loves. From her radical parents — Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and William Godwin, the political philosopher who advocated for the abolition of marriage — she has discovered that, in an unjust society, she must seize what matters to her. (And she must do so before whatever she’s seizing inevitably dies.) So, she rebels, at first mildly, reading the ripe gothics of Eliza Parsons rather than the Samuel Taylor Coleridge her father prefers. Then she meets the not-quite-famous-yet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth) and, despite his existing marriage and daughter, soon takes up with him to live in romantic poverty. She enters this unmarried cohabitation over the objections of Godwin and, in the film’s telling, possibly over those of her own heart — how shocked she is to discover that Percy Bysshe Shelley sees nothing wrong with them each taking lovers. Then come the big scenes, a sort of greatest hits revue of English lit: Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) swans through, our hero and her poet lover join him at a Lake Geneva estate, and amid the inevitable dust-ups over who loves who and who doesn’t, the writers elect to participate in a contest. Who can pen the finest ghost story?
That scenario has inspired a host of films and fictions. I can’t quite say that Mary Shelley is one of these because nothing about it is inspired, save some of Sturridge’s Byronic mood swings. The film dashes through all this with the flat directness of a GRE study guide. Maisie Williams, of Game of Thrones, plays the family friend who first points out Percy Bysshe Shelley. “He’s a radical poet who thinks poetry ought to reform society and so is often in trouble,” she declares, the line like something a cramming student has scribbled on a notecard. The radical reads a bit from Queen Mab but we don’t really see him in trouble — except for failure to pay the rent — and we never hear much about those ideas of his, except those that spare him from monogamous commitment to Mary. He is dashingly handsome, though the film doesn’t much examine the complexities of the public personae of Shelley and Byron, the ways in which these men seized, as few had before them, the role of celebrity. Also unexamined is Mary’s thinking about this, or the irony that the least famous and ostentatious of the three at the time is the one whose work still thrives today outside of the classroom. Sadly, though, this Mary doesn’t often seem to do or think much at all. Other than her bold early decision to smooch the married Shelley in a graveyard, she’s mostly an aggrieved observer, here, wide-eyed and slightly disappointed, slowly gathering the points of inspiration for Frankenstein.
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Even the composition of her masterwork plays as something that happens to Mary rather than something she chooses to do. Writing the novel takes place here in feverish montage, a gush of images of what she’s seen and experienced as she gets it all down. Yes, it’s the romantic idea — cultivated by Byron — of writing as channeling, of the writer’s mind as an aeolian harp, its music played by whatever wind happens to gust through the window. This portrayal denies Mary Shelley’s role in her own creation. Rather than the artist who marshaled the will and focus to craft, from inspiration, a searching, searing, deeply personal manuscript, she’s presented as something more like the laboratory equipment between the electric current and the legs of that frog. By reducing its subject to a mere conduit, Mary Shelley, too, abandons her.