There is a chapter devoted to Percy Bysshe Shelley in Paul Johnson’s The Intellectuals, so it is probably safe to assume he was difficult to live with. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin would agree. Her scandalous relationship with the poet brings her no end of grief. Yet, she can also recognize his merits. It is a complicated relationship that eventually inspires one of the greatest literary monsters of all time. Godwin’s artistic development and her eventful early years with her future husband, most definitely including the fateful 1816 summer in Lake Geneva, are dramatized in Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
Mary Godwin never knew her mother, feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, but she always took pride in her nonconformist principles and lifestyle. By the same token, she instinctively recoiled from her stepmother’s puritanical attitude. Ironically, this made her a willing target for Percy Shelley’s seductions. Despite the fact he was already, strictly speaking, married, they openly consorted together in a very public romance. Naturally, it severed her relationship with her philosophically permissive but personally righteous father, but her sister Claire Clairmont remains loyal. In fact, she will do her best to follow Wollstonecraft Godwin’s example with Lord Byron, which explains how all three came to be Byron’s guests at his Swiss villa.
At least three films have been devoted to that literarily significant summer, but Ken Russell’s Gothic is the one cineastes will most likely compare with Mary Shelley. Arguably, it is Dr. Polidori who gains the most stature in Emma Jensen’s screenplay and under Al-Mansour’s direction. In fact, the respect and sympathy that develops between him and Wollstonecraft Godwin might even be the most memorable element of the film.
On the other hand, Tom Sturridge’s Lord Byron is considerably creepier and more predatory than Gabriel Byrne’s in Gothic. It is hard to fathom spending more than one night as his houseguest, but it needs hardly be said, they were not thinking very clearly during this time.
Somewhat playing against her arrested-development-teenager type, Elle Fanning is much more forceful and confident as the titular Mary Shelley than you might expect, which is a very pleasant surprise. She also develops some convincing dysfunctional codependent chemistry with Douglas Booth, who is perfectly cast as the snide, self-absorbed Percy Shelley. Sturridge is flamboyantly sinister as Byron, while Ben Hardy and Stephen Dillane provide dignity and humanistic reality checks as Polidori and Godwin, respectively. Alas, Maisie Williams does not get enough screen time as Wollstonecraft Godwin’s Scotts friend Isabel Baxter, whereas Bel Powley’s petulant Clairmont quickly tries our patience.
Obviously, there is a pronounced feminist angle to the Wollstonecrafts and Al-Mansour’s film. Much has been made of parallels (arguably over-exaggerated) between chauvinistic Nineteenth Century England and the misogynistic Saudi setting of Al-Mansour’s debut, Wadjda. Yet, there are also echoes of the Percy Shelley and Lord Byron that Johnson would have us know. We definitely see a dramatic disconnect between the poets’ lofty rhetoric and their frequently appalling behavior. “Free love” might sound great in pamphlets, but it is more problematic when introduced into real relationships. Yet, there is also a theme of responsibility running throughout the film. At one point, the future Ms. Shelley will express the sentiment, if not in so many words: she made her bed, so now she will have to sleep in it.
Of course, Mary Shelley is in no way intended to be a horror movie, but you have to give Al-Mansour credit for including some rather sinister and cinematic hat-tips and pre-figuring sources of inspiration. As a result, Frankenstein fans (which is surely all of us, right?), should feel a warm attraction to the film. Indeed, it is quite a classy looking and cliché-challenging period drama. Highly recommended, Mary Shelley screens again tonight (4/29), during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.