Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Screenwriters: Emma Jensen, with additional dialogue by Haifaa Al-Mansour
Runtime: 120 mins.
Australian release date: 5 July 2018
Previewed at: Luna Leederville, Perth, on 5 July 2018
In the current climate of the global #MeToo movement, it is not surprising to see more films dealing with the emancipation of women. The latest to hit the screens is Mary Shelley, directed by Saudi filmmaker, Haifaa Al-Mansour, who gained her Master's degree in Directing and Film Studies from the University of Sydney. It is a story that reveals how the fight for recognition in a man’s world, in this particular case in 18th century London, was never an easy path and it took guts and a trailblazing attitude to stand up and be recognised. Little wonder, then, that Haifaa Al-Mansour was the woman who took the job in hand; her first feature, Wadjda, broke new ground in Saudi Arabia, in that it was (a) made by a woman, and (b) told the story of a young girl who wanted to ride a bicycle in a society that frowned on females undertaking such activities.
The film recounts the true story of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning), the daughter of respected philosopher and author William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), who became besotted with the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth) and refused to give him up, even though he was already married and had children. When Shelley turned up at the Godwin household seeking guidance from Mary’s father, William was more than ready to take him in because he was in desperate need of funds, but when he realised what was happening under his roof he banished Percy from his house. Mary fled too and the pair pursued what was termed a Bohemian existence which went completely against the mores of the period. Not only that, they also took Mary’s half-sister Claire (Bell Powley) along with them. When Shelley lost his allowance, the trio fell on hard times and finagled an invitation to stay with the notorious and lascivious Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) at his villa on Lake Geneva. While there, the hot-house atmosphere led to all sorts of bed-hopping and drunken antics and, during one particularly drug and alcohol-fuelled evening, Byron challenged his houseguests to write a ghost story. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was the result and, at the tender age of 18, she was placed in the position of fighting to have the work recognised as hers because, naturally, no one believed that a young woman could have written such a dark and psychologically complex work.
Mary Shelley is a visually authentic period piece; the subdued, almost dim cinematography and lighting exemplify the Northern Hemisphere climate and are in keeping with the film’s dark subject matter. It’s an interesting tale for obvious reasons, especially when you consider how the monster in Frankenstein has captured the public imagination in the centuries since its creation. There is, however, something lacking in the central performances. Booth’s Percy seems to be reciting his work each time he speaks while Sturridge, on the other hand, appears to be over-acting his character, as does Powley. Dillane, at least, brings authenticity to Mary’s long-suffering but loving father. Credit must also be given though to Elle Fanning’s depiction of Mary as a woman who becomes deeply affected by the total disregard these men have for their female counterparts. The redeeming factor is that Mary was, ultimately, recognised as an author in her own right and, for this reason alone, the film should be seen by the current generation of females who may be unfamiliar with her story. Mary Shelley’s message is loud and clear and proves that if you stand up and be counted there is a strong chance of succeeding against the odds and what could be more positive than that?