“There is something at work in my soul, which I do not understand,” so says Mary Shelley at the beginning of the film. We take it that the filmmakers plan to shed some light on the topic of Mary Shelley’s troubled soul, which inevitably resulted in one of the most famous horror novels of all time – “Frankenstein”.
MARY SHELLY is a biographical drama of the famous author who wrote the book “Frankenstein” by the age of 18. At the film’s start, the audience sees the younger Mary (Elle Fanning) reading and scribbling. She has trouble at home, particularly in the relationship with her step-mother and sent to live with relatives in Scotland where she meets her suitor Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth).
However, 15 minutes into film after Mary meets Percy, director Haifaa al-Mansour decides to concentrate her film on Mary Shelley’s first love and her romantic relationship with him (full name Percy Bysshe Shelley). The story turns out to be less a biography of the author than a period love story. Worse still, al-Mansour’s decision to have her film punctuated with Percy’s poetry distracts the fact that the film is about Mary and not about him or his writings.
The trouble with all this is that director al-Mansour is unable to sway the audience unto Mary’s side. There is hint of the need for female independence in these times, which is emphasized at the end when she has trouble getting her novel published. When told by her father (Stephen Dillan) that if she goes with Percy, she would lose the love of her father forever,” one is immediately not on her side, for Mary seems young, impetuous and impertinent. When Percy finally flirts with the younger Claire (Bel Powley) , things become clear that Percy is not the man Mary had thought him to be. It is too late as Mary is pregnant with his child.
Elle Fanning is convincing as the independent young lady who falls into hard times, due to her own fault. Douglas Booth is terribly annoying as the handsome rogue, Percy – but I suppose the character of Percy is supposed to be annoying. Tom Sturridge goes over the top in his portrayal of the even more detestable Lord Byron.
The scene of Mary comforting Claire in the woods under rain and thunder shows the director at her worst, going for cheap theatrics.
Al-Mansour’s film is beautifully created and shot in terms of period atmosphere both in the interiors to the dimly lit cobblestone street and vast green Scottish landscape exteriors. MARY SHELLEY is Saudi Arabian director Haifaa al-Mansour’s second feature after she became film society’s darling with her debut feature WADJDA. WADJA was the first film made by a female director from Saudi Arabia and the first film from Saudi Arabia o be screened at Cannes.
` But MARY SHELLEY ends up a story without a strong direction with inspiration behind Mary for her books only hinted at. One assumes it is due to her hardships – such as the haunting of her mother’s death, her distressful love affair and loss of her in infant child. In the end, the audience is still left in the dark as to the understanding of what was really at work in the soul of Mary Shelly.