Mary Shelley may have liked her most recent biopic, but she wouldn’t have written it.
Starring Elle Fanning in the lead role, together with Douglas Booth (Percy Shelley), Tom Sturridge (Lord Byron) and Bel Powley as Mary’s sister Claire, Mary Shelley treads the ground well-worn by the recent renaissance of literary biopics. If here centred on a roundly intriguing tale and Shelley’s own formidable creativity, in this film, love, friendship, betrayal and duty, as might be expected, form more a part of the story than anything better reckoned with in Shelley’s greatest work.
This would be an immaterial matter but for the feature’s attempts to parlay it’s own varying plot strands and emotive backbones into those of Frankenstein, at times drawing too long a bow when it would have been better to show, not tell. Instead pausing the action to allow for the admittedly fairly verbose literary figures to outline why this story is of paramount relevance to the obsessed chemist who reanimates dead tissue, the more traditional focus on the titular figure’s scandal-ridden life better reflects the filmic canon that has characterised modern interpretations of Shelley’s forbears than that which was immortalised by the artist herself.
Fanning no stranger to gothic fiction, having only this year headlined both The Beguiled and The Neon Demon, it is especially curious that a film about, of all things, arguably the most significant gothic novel of the 19th century, should feature a comparatively weaker focus on that which rendered the author so renowned. Drip-feeding us moments of morbidity and gothic delight never ever-present enough to distil the mood, and then in sequences largely extraneous to the main goings-on, the historical tale is ripe for a darker undertone that so well served the likes of Rebecca and even less endearing, more recent offerings such as Crimson Peak & A Cure For Wellness. This potential no less evident given the presence of Fanning and Booth, amongst others, the performers here are well cast though regretfully never deployed for the more fully realised stylistic tour de force for which they are so well suited.
To that end, some of the cast’s best, among them Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams, though proffered top billing are present all too briefly. Sturridge is a memorable addition though never permitted, together with so many of the performers, to plumb the full depths of his poet’s persona, neglecting what could otherwise have distinguished an enjoyable if largely run of the mill drama.
Mary Shelly screened as part of the British Film Festival and is in cinemas from July 5, 2018