REVIEW: Mary Shelley (2017)

I am a great believer in a film title setting the premise of what it is you're about to be viewing. I’m all for mysterious airs, cloak and daggers with a slight ‘twin peaks’ edge, but surely when it comes to a dramatisation of an historical figures life you should be able to judge the book by its cover. Pardon the pun.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (portrayed by Elle Fanning) was just 21 years old when she wrote Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. The story rapidly became an icon of not only the horror genre, but also of science fiction, with some having previously argued that it was indeed the first true modern science-fiction story. Not only did Shelley conceive a hauntingly intelligent concept at such a young age, but she also refused to use a male pseudonym - a magnificent and bold feat in a time where women were only beginning to make their mark and hold their place in the world of men.

As if these points weren’t enough to develop a fabulous biopic, you also have the dramatic whirlwind romance between Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley (portrayed by Douglas Booth) and their relationships within the infamous bohemian circle led by Lord Byron (portrayed by Tom Sturridge), which not only shaped Shelley as a woman, but also formed the traits of the main characters within her novel.

Credit goes to director Haifaa Al-Mansour and screenwriter Emma Jensen. This does appear to be their intended direction of storytelling. So why have so many previous critics panned the biopic? And why has Elle Fanning’s performance been stated as drab and sickly as a child from the era depicted? And where did it all go wrong?

I my opinion, it didn’t. Elle Fanning’s performance was nothing short of interesting and captivating as she managed to morph from an emotionless ‘seen and not be heard’ woman of the time, to a woman who allowed her emotions to run wild and drive her forward to success.

Others have also slammed the film's romantic outlook on Mary Shelley’s life, as we flit between scenes of lovemaking, declarations of writing genius, and harrowing emotional exchanges. I actually found it necessary for these aspects to be shown; after all, can you really manage to make a film surrounding the leading figures of the romanticist genre without having romance?

Perhaps most are right when they say some scenes do not portray the realistic aspects of their relationship. And I do believe that a biopic should focus on breaking down the walls between modern-day life and key historical figures, creating less of a barrier between the past and present. But I also believe that a film is there for enjoyment and should first and foremost provide that enjoyment. Al-Mansour and Jensen have done just that, while also allowing room for our imagination to still ask 'what if?' and fill in the gaps.

As we are discussing the life of a woman who dared to wonder what more to life could there be and challenged her imagination to go further, I see it as a job well done. Mary Shelley is film that you should see for yourself, before discarding it based on what others have said. After all, if such an attitude had been followed around our leading lady, would we have the magnificent Gothic story of Frankenstein and his creature that we have today?

By Melanie Whitlock

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