Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour‘s biopic about Frankenstein author Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s passionate romance with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley — and Godwin/Shelley’s struggle to be recognized as a female author — is a compelling, atmospheric drama with strong performances by a talented cast. It is the truth-based tale of a truly gifted woman who courageously rebelled against the repressive customs of her day. Continue reading…
The daughter of philosopher/writer William Godwin (Stephen Dillane) and outspoken feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after giving birth, Mary Godwin (Elle Fanning) is far from a typical teenage girl in early 1800s London. Smart, well-read, ambitious, and creative, Mary has trouble getting along with her stepmother, Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggatt), and finds herself on an extended visit to Scotland, where — according to the movie, anyway — she meets the dashing, soulful Shelley (Douglas Booth).
The pair are immediately drawn to each other, but their romance faces many obstacles … particularly Shelley’s current wife. Nevertheless, they can’t resist the passion they feel, so they start a scandalous life together. They’re accompanied by Mary’s step-sister, Claire (Bel Powley), and cross paths with the likes of Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge); their Bohemian lifestyle initially suits all concerned, but jealousy, resentment, self-doubt, and tragedy all interfere with the path to happiness. Meanwhile, Mary is struggling to find her voice as a writer and create something original that’s wholly hers.
Underlying everything is the film’s moody, Gothic tone, which plays into Mary’s powerful emotions and fierce determination to stand on her own two feet. It’s hard to think that Al-Mansour’s own experiences (she’s the first female film director in Saudi Arabia) didn’t strongly inform her take on Mary’s courage and persistence. Emma Jensen’s script takes a few liberties with the facts/true timeline of Mary’s life, but the messages it conveys about the importance of willpower, love, and women’s rights are impossible to miss. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Kristen Page Kirby: Haifaa Al-Mansour should have burst onto the scene with her criminally underseen first feature, Wadjda, about a Saudi girl who participates in a Quran contest in an effort to win a bicycle (secretively shot in Saudi Arabia, Al-Mansour directed from inside a van so as not to be spotted having authority over men). Wadjda won AWfJ’s 2012 EDA Award for Outstanding Achievement By A Woman In The Film Industry for Al-Mansour. Perhaps Mary Shelley — though not as good as Wadjda — will give Al-Mansour easier access to the success she deserves. Mary Shelley is beautifully told and looks its best when in shadow; the frames take on a Caravaggio-like appearance. Shelley’s writing of Frankenstein is not, surprisingly, the centerpiece of the story; instead the bulk of the film is about Shelley’s younger life and her tempestuous romantic relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley. Swept up in the idea of a life-changing, perfect love, Mary instead finds that men who care nothing for the realities of the world — preferring instead the higher arts of poetry and music, neither of which pay particularly well — go from romantic figures to wine-swigging spendthrifts when the bills come due. It’s a slow build, but eventually it becomes clear that Mary Shelley’s story of an ideal that melts into loneliness is just like any other sci-fi tale: A way to explore through the imagination those situations that often feel all too real.
Nikki Baughan: Combining an iconic feminist heroine with a lavish period drama makes for a solid sophomore film from Haifaa Al Mansour. She follows Wadjda with this real-life tale of author Mary Shelley, who overcame prejudice and self-doubt to pen her masterwork, Frankenstein. Propelled by a stunning performance from Elle Fanning as Shelley, a passionate woman railing against the social constraints of the day, this may be a somewhat conventional biopic, hitting all the expected dramatic beats as it explores the personal inspirations behind Mary’s creation, but it’s an absorbing tale well told.
MaryAnn Johanson It’s hard to believe there hasn’t been a movie about Mary Shelley before now! She’s such a seminal figure in literature, especially in genre literature: a teenaged girl basically invented science fiction because she was bored by and annoyed with the arrogant, narcissistic men surrounding her. Actually, perhaps that explains why she’s been ignored by movies — she too much embodies criticism of too many men’s personalities, especially of the kinds of men who tend to make movies.
Esther Iverem: Who knew? Who knew that a biopic about a Victorian-era novelist could be so fascinating? Director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley breathes life into 19th century London, with hints of nascent feminism and free love, and the capacity of cozy colonizers for creative expression.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s biographical drama Mary Shelley follows the life of the legendary author who wrote Frankenstein. Under Al-Mansour’s direction, from a script by Emma Jensen, the drama explores how Mary (played by the talented Elle Fanning), the daughter of two great thinkers — liberal political philosopher William Godwin (Stephen Dillane) and the godmother feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft — learned to find her own voice after running away with a married Percy Bysshe Shelley (played by arguably Britain’s prettiest actor, Douglas Booth). The cinematography shifts between dreary and sunny palettes to echo Mary’s state of mind, and the story teases out the various reasons (some scientific, some heartbreakingly personal) for Mary’s fascination with bringing the dead back to life.
Nell Minow: Elle Fanning’s performance illuminates this story of passion, imagination, and fierce independence.
Anne Brodie: Renowned Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour gives Mary Shelley’s artistic journey to writing Frankenstein the teen dream treatment, it’s beautiful, driven by passion and pain and love that doesn’t heal. It’s a fitting companion to the Twilight films; sex, passion, teen lust, growing pains and dark themes expressed by beautiful characters are the prime movers in this amped up Gothic romance. Pretty to look at and too fiery to hold, Elle Fanning’s Mary is fascinated by death dating back to childhood, inspired by nightmares, loneliness and anxiety and the knowledge the her mother died ten days after she was born. “It was my fault” she says. Mary is always pen in hand, scratching out lines and phrases, struggling and starting over, keen to have a feeling growing inside her expressed, something dark. She meets the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley played by Douglas Booth; they become lovers and share a home. He is married and has two children; Mary distracts herself by studying re-animation of the human body via galvanism, the use of electrical charge. She dreams about a person coming back to life as a monster and the idea of expressing that unexpressed thing forms. When she’s ready, she writes at breakneck speed, feeling elated and free. She creates the hugely successful novel, a major win for feminisms and literature in 1818. The reawakened being, the sentient monster, is born and so is the writer. Mansour’s portrait of the artist suffers from an unsteady pace and balance, its bottom heavy and unconvincing at times but certainly breathes with Gothic inspiration.
Liz Whittemore: Mary Shelley delves into the uphill battle of women making a literary (and literal) name for themselves in an era dominated by the Victorian patriarchy. Mary Shelley is also a story of what women will sacrifice for love, what we will endure for understanding and acceptance from peers, and respect from those in our industry. The message undoubtedly resonates today. Not only are you getting a gorgeously presented period film, but a peek inside the inspiration for one of the most iconic novels of all time.
Jennifer Merin Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is a brooding biopic about Frankenstein author Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her passionate but tortured relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley, who became her husband in 1816. The film’s dramatic arc and moody atmosphere — imbued with gloom and mystery — brilliantly capture the social repression of women, a fact of life that hampered Mary and against which she consistently rebelled. Haifaa Al-Mansour’s direction. Emma Jensen’s script and Elle Fanning’s portrayal bring Mary Shelley’s courage and determination to life. As the first female film director in Saudi Arabia,, Al-Mansour boldly presents the woman’s perspective in film, stirring controversy and stimulating social change to raise the status of women.
Marilyn Ferdinand: Frankenstein, a horror story of uncomprehending destruction prompted by monstrous ambition, is the timeless classic brought to life by English author Mary Shelley. The novel, which continues to capture our imagination, has prompted many tellings, particularly in film. Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour decided to focus her attention on the young woman behind the monster and how she came to be associated with the man who would eventually become her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Al-Mansour’s breathless approach is fitting for the era of the Romantic movement to which Mary and Percy contributed, that is, something designed to make teenagers swoon. It, however, largely ignores Mary’s intellectual gifts and the influence of Mary’s philosopher/feminist parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and turns Mary into something of a drudge as she can only stand by and watch her boy behave badly with his best friend, Lord Byron. As a work for young adults in the throes of hormonal upheavel, Mary Shelley is perfectly fine, but it’s a shame Al-Mansour didn’t give them more to think about.
Cate Marquis It is a bit surprising that no one else has made a movie about English author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and the writing of her book Frankenstein, arguably the first science fiction novel. Interestingly, it is Haifaa Al-Mansour, a ground-breaking woman who directs Mary Shelley. Al-Mansour is the first Saudi woman director, and the film’s script is by another woman, Emma Jensen. Elle Fanning plays Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the teen girl who falls for poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, an admirer of her radical philosopher father William Godwin. Read full review.
Pam Grady: Literary biography is a tricky genre. The writers portrayed are brilliant; the screenplay, typically, not so much. This handsome film is, sadly, not the exception to the rule. Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth are well cast as Frankenstein novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her lover and eventual husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. They are surrounded by a fine supporting cast that includes Stephen Dillane as her father, philosopher William Godwin, and Bel Powley as Mary’s stepsister Claire. David Ungaro’s gorgeous cinematography adds another sublime element. But the actors and the gorgeous scenery are mired in a screenplay which tames the wild lives of these brilliant writers and passionate lovers into a far too conventional drama that lacks the spark of the very people who inspired it.
Title: Mary Shelley
Directors: Haifaa Al Mansour
Release Date: May 25, 2018
Running Time: 120 minutes
Screenwriter: Emma Jensen and Haifaa Al-Mansour
Distribution Company: IFC Films
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferinand, Pam Grady, Esther Iverem, MaryAnn Johanson, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Kristen Page-Kirby, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf
Edited by Jennifer Merin