Mary Shelley film review: A faithful but clinical biopic about the conception of a masterpiece

James Luxford
Mary Shelley

Two hundred years after the novel’s publication, the story of Frankenstein still captures the imagination like few others.

This biopic attempts to portray the book’s inception on screen, charting the motivations that made the writer put pen to paper. It succeeds in this narrow task, but feels more like a reconstruction than a portrait.

Elle Fanning plays Shelley as a formidable young woman, drawn into a passionate relationship with poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth) that inspires her to write her masterpiece. Their volatile relationship unfolds with plenty of intrigue and it’s set against a period backdrop beautifully realised by director Haifaa al-Mansour (2012’s Wadjda). Fanning overcomes the film’s rather straightforward storytelling by revealing something in between the lines, an unspoken passion that perfectly illustrates the film’s message of female repression and artistic drive. If nothing else, it’s a showcase for the 20 year old’s potential as a star of the future.

But no single performance can paper over the cracks of the script, which spells out every emotion and plot point in dialogue that begs for nuance. The true story of Shelleys’ relationship was one of rebellion and free thinking, but al-Mansour is more interested in Percy’s ego and sexual proclivities than in Mary’s creative spark. There’s also too much emphasis on Percy’s friendship with Lord Byron, who is played without subtlety by Tom Sturridge.

It doesn’t help that Booth’s Percy is conceited and one dimensional, displaying little chemistry with Fanning. This lessens the impact of the later scenes, when Mary’s novel begins to come to life by way of a personal tragedy. There are parallels drawn between this period and today’s fight for gender equality, but like so much in the film, it’s handled indelicately.

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