Tribeca Film Festival 2018: ‘Mary Shelley’

by Adrienne McIlvaine (@mizocty)

Bel Powley as Claire Clairmont, Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley, Douglas Booth Percy Shelley, and Tom Sturridge as Lord Byron in MARY SHELLEY. Photo credit: David Ungaro.

When was the last time Frankenstein scared you?

In the two centuries since its publication, the rough edges have been smoothed away, the white-hot misery that gave birth to Mary Shelley’s monstrous creation transmuted into something more pop culturally palatable, and the fear and loathing softened into familiarity — even parody (sorry, Young Frankenstein). Which is why Mary Shelley, a gorgeous and galvanizing biopic of the forward-thinking writer, smartly sets its sights on re-introducing us to the real Frankenstein origin story; of how unbearable grief and tortured love, coupled with 19th century sexism and misogyny, inspired Mary Shelley to create one of literature’s greatest horror icons.

Directed by pioneering Saudi filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour and grounded by a fiery Elle Fanning as Shelley, the film focuses on a few pivotal years in her long and radical life, beginning with the young writer meeting the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1814 and concluding with the groundbreaking publication of Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus in 1818. There’s enough drama (and gorgeous period costumes and set design) to fill a BBC miniseries, from Mary’s to her tempestuous relationship with her father William Godwin (Game of Thrones’ Stephen Dillane, making the most of a small role) to her and Percy’s scandalous love affair and the death of their prematurely-born daughter in 1815.

The script, by first-time screenwriter Emma Jensen, cleverly foreshadows the disparate elements that will eventually coalesce into Shelley’s most famous work, linking together the spark of electricity and creativity. Though her wretched creation is borne out of the anguish of her own life, the film doesn’t suggest that great art can only come from great suffering. Instead, it proposes that art is a means in which to make sense of that suffering, a way to honor the dead and the lost while finding a way forward.

Fiercely independent yet committed to the idea of one true love, Shelley is a fascinating character whose life of heartbreak and betrayal is all too common in a society still struggling with the feminist ideals of equality and freedom. Fanning, a rebellious revelation in 2016’s quietly devastating 20th Century Women, is equally compelling here. She delivers a dazzling performance that balances vulnerability and strength, tenderness and rage. Her cherubic eyes telegraph both innocence and wariness, and her youthful beauty and calm demeanor belie the simmering rage and steely resolve that marked the forward-thinking Shelley as a woman, writer, and thinker years ahead of her peers.

It’s a delicious (and perhaps deliberate) irony that in a film about the power of language, those who claim to be the most enlightened in the way of words are those who understand that power the least. Douglas Booth embodies Percy Shelley with all the haughty grandeur and arrogance of a man who deep down seeks nothing more than justification for his own selfishness, his superficial philosophizing no match for his wife’s fierce and authentic intensity. Lord Byron, Shelley’s Romantic contemporary played with poetic glam rock swagger by Tom Sturridge, is a whirlwind of debauchery and excess. His Italian residence, which Mary and Percy, along with Mary’s sister Claire (Bel Powley), call home for an extended period of time, is the stuff of Gothic nightmares, a testament to his decadent cruelty; we hurt the ones we love, but the ones we don’t most of all.

Mary Shelley grew up in the shadow of her well-known parents, pioneering writers and thinkers in their own right. Her drive to create, to find her own voice in a world that wouldn’t always listen, took her to the edges of despair, only to realize that to come out the other side can be the biggest inspiration of them all.

About The Author

Hiko Mitsuzuka
Entertainment Editor-at-Large

Hiko Mitsuzuka is a self-proclaimed pop culture connoisseur who resides in L.A. and obsesses over songs months before everyone else obsesses over them. He has worked in TV and commercial production ever since he left his native New York in the early 00s. He has worked at the world-renowned Anonymous Content and Carsey-Werner and freelanced as a treatment writer for award-winning directors as well as a contributing writer for 'Instinct.' In addition to writing about entertainment and travel for 'Bello,' Hiko can currently be seen in the roles of Manager of Creative Planning at Stun Creative (PromaxBDA's North America Agency of the Year, 2013, 2014, 2017), film critic for ScreenPicks.com, and contributor for The Huffington Post. He's also currently working on the novel 'Slasher Movie Girl.' His obsessions include quoting old sitcom dialogue and stalking people on Instagram. His vices include chocolate chip cookies and movie theater popcorn. Tweet him @TheFirstEcho.

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