Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. USA, 2017. Gidden Media, HanWay Films, Head Gear Films, Juliette Films, Metrol Technology, Parallel Films, Sobini Films. Screenplay by Emma Jensen, additional writing by Haifaa Al-Mansour. Cinematography by David Ungaro. Produced by Amy Baer, Ruth Coady, Alan Moloney. Music by Amelia Warner. Production Design by Paki Smith. Costume Design by Caroline Koener. Film Editing by Alex Mackie. Toronto International Film Festival 2017.
The legacy of Mary Shelley is her eternally famous and admired novel Frankenstein, a story and character that have entered popular lore well beyond the manner that Shelley originally intended. Here you’ll get only a little more information about the woman behind the legend than you got from Haunted Summer, Rowing With The Wind or Gothic, for while Haifaa Al-Mansour’s film is the rare chance to focus on Shelley specifically as the flesh and blood author behind one of the most deeply affecting tales of science gone awry ever written, Al-Mansour offers up little more than the domestic misery between Shelley (a wonderfully delicate Elle Fanning) and her rakish poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth in perfect errant pretty-boy mode). Having been raised under the shadow of her notorious mother, author Mary Wollstonecraft, who died a few days after giving birth to her daughter, young Mary is raised by her concerned father (Stephen Dillane) and bitter stepmother (Joanne Froggatt) and determined to honour her mother’s rebellious spirit and flouting of marital convention. Percy provides the best opportunity to let her freak flag fly, for after learning that he is living apart from his wife, Mary decides to shack up with him, happily leaving behind whatever ties to good society she had as the daughter of a book seller; before long his lack of attention to financial matters wears on her, particularly when their first child is born and she must raise it in poverty and squalor. An invitation by the ever eccentric Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge in effective eyeliner) takes the couple and Mary’s flimsy sister (Bel Powley) to the country where she is inspired by a dare to write a ghost story and, thanks to her interest in the scientific theories of reanimation as well as the places that her own personal tragedies have taken her, creates a story so dark and complex that publishers refuse to believe a woman wrote it. Al-Mansour captures the failures of bohemian living (free love mainly just means that guys don’t take responsibility for the mess they leave behind), and makes sure that Dillane’s presence is always there to show the contrast between Mary’s liberal spirit and the tempering that comes with age, but too much of the character’s headstrong individuality is spelled out to an almost condescending degree by a hacky script riddled with bad dialogue; the film then downplays the fact that the great author was ahead of her time but not quite up to date with ours, it’s worth noting that her book was a publishing success after she gave into bourgeois convention and married her lover (not that I blame her, as it’s very unlikely that it could have been otherwise). The main blindness of the film, though, despite the terrific cinematography and Fanning’s unwavering performance, is Al-Mansour’s belief that the romance between the two leads is more interesting than the things about Shelley that she treats as sidebars, mainly her interest in science.