There are a couple of common ways to make an author biopic. You can create Capote, a picture so true and legitimate it carries the literary texture of an author’s life. You can also create Mary Shelley and tell a pointed story using just the fragments of truth about the author that prove most interesting. There is a great need for both. Whatever school of thought you subscribe to, the prevailing feeling after watching Mary Shelley is, mostly, how has it taken so long to record such a great and cinema ready story. Haifaa Al-Mansour displays a great tonal understanding of what interests Shelley’s readers and moviegoers alike and has produced a neatly compelling biopic.
Mary Shelley is believably portrayed by Elle Fanning, who does credible work and is evidently well cast. Proceedings are centered around the author’s love affair with Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth) and the preliminary life research it took to get to writing Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus. To get to a point where she could reanimate the dead took a lot of hard living, and this film shows only some of that. In the tone of a Gothic romance but also a costume drama, the picture explores the couple’s often tumultuous and jealous relationship.
There is a clear feminist argument to be made against this film. Mary is defined here almost completely by her relationship to a man. That is both true of the time she lived but also not absolutely representative of why she is one of the most significant women of letters. It casts judgment unnecessarily on the promiscuity and polyamory of their relationship, basically following status quo: what is OK for the man is not desired and the same for the woman. I’d like to validate the perspective that this does not curry any favor for the picture but also celebrate what it does for women.
Al-Mansour is an incredible director, the first female one from Saudi Arabia. Following her work on Wadjda, she is building an even greater résumé here. We can say that Mary was a force of nature herself. We see she is coping with the loss of her firstborn; that so much of her want to reanimate the dead could be construed as her coping with loss. And we do not want to overlook how romantic and interesting her relationship with Percy would be to literary types. It means we get to share her experiences of the literary elites—those certainly out of reach for anyone writing romance or horror at that time—and especially doing both at once. We get to experience the friendships of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron vicariously. The early half of the film is imbued with such lovely poetic language. Percy was a genius who motivated and brought about Mary’s own inherent powers.
The final act finally attaches to what we’re here for Frankenstein. This year marks the 200th anniversary of its publication. It will truly be read forever. The entire process to get to Frankenstein is very interesting. That is what the whole movie ideally builds to a crescendo to a final act of women’s liberation in literature. Instead, it putters through a baggy middle and doesn’t ever feel especially pointed about this purpose. It’s a small loss in a movie steeped in Gothic quality and credible performances.
I’ve always come out on the higher end of author biopics. Even last year’s Rebel in the Rye on J.D. Salinger really delighted me. (It killed me, it really did.) It’s possible to see where a picture does not capture the authenticity of life and still allow it to be a celebration of the literature you love. That’s the way with Mary Shelley, too. It’s absurd that it is our only example of this author—her life contains so much more than is even suggested at this point. What is there is still a remarkably fresh and necessary piece of art that will be a great pairing for Frankenstein’s 200th anniversary.