Haifaa Al-Mansour became the toast of the international film community in 2012 when her first feature, “Wadjda,” became not only the first feature film from a female Saudi director, but also the first feature to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, period. But what often went missing from the media coverage of the time was the fact that even aside from all those historic firsts, “Wadjda” was first and foremost simply a wonderful film, announcing a talented new director with a unique vision. For her second feature, “Mary Shelley,” Al-Mansour makes an admirably bold left turn into British period biopic, tackling the early life of the “Frankenstein” author, and unfortunately much of her style is diluted in the attempt. Impressively shot and suffused with a righteous feminist fire, the film is undercut by a confused and clunky script and a fundamental lack of thematic focus, turning an extraordinary story into didactic and disjointed melodrama.
It isn’t hard to see what would have attracted the director of “Wadjda” to Mary Shelley, who lived such an incredible life that it’s baffling there hadn’t been a biopic devoted to her already. In addition to writing one of the most seminal novels in the history of the English language while she was still a teenager, she was also a survivor and nonconformist par excellence: Bucking countless conventions of femininity, travelling throughout continental Europe in spite of constant poverty, and continuing to produce influential writing even after the untimely deaths of her husband and three of her four children. “Mary Shelley” covers two or three years of her young adulthood, from the moment she first met dashing young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley up to “Frankenstein’s” publication, and while it gets most of the details right, it never quite conveys the sheer radicalness of her life, nor what drove her to live it that way.
Played by a fully engaged, well-accented, yet somewhat miscast Elle Fanning, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin first enters the picture as the rebellious 16-year-old daughter of philosopher turned debt-ridden bookseller William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), living in cramped quarters with her rambunctious stepsister, Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley). Her mother, who died shortly after giving birth to her, was the writer Mary Wollstonecraft, whose non-monogamous lifestyle and proto-feminist treatise “Vindication on the Rights of Woman” created no small stir in literary circles. Mary hopes to become a writer as well, but after one too many fights with her disapproving stepmother (Joanne Froggatt), she’s sent to live in Scotland.
Quickly befriending her new hosts’ daughter Isabel (Maisie Williams, left adrift in a role that serves no obvious purpose), she meets Shelley (a smoldering Douglas Booth) at a party and is immediately taken. Back in London, Shelley appears again as an apprentice/benefactor to Mary’s father, and after a hot-and-heavy first kiss on top of Mary’s mother’s grave – one of several real details of Mary Shelley’s life that should feel more incredible here than they do – they decide to run away together, taking Claire with them.
Their troubles start almost immediately. Despite his aristocratic background, Shelley’s financial status is precarious in the extreme, and the threesome are frequently on the run from his creditors. Their nontraditional living situation has created a public scandal, and Mary’s father disowns her. It also turns out Shelley has a wife and a young child, and Mary realizes too late that when he asked her if she agreed with her mother’s theories on polyamory, his curiosity wasn’t entirely academic.
The film breezes through fights, poetically-charged reconciliations, and Mary’s well grounded suspicions that Shelley and Claire are becoming an item. The couple lose a child shortly after birth, and Claire soon thereafter winds up pregnant by the mad, bad, and dangerous to know poet Lord Byron (played by a scenery-chewing Tom Sturridge as some combination of debauched ‘70s rock star and telenovela villain). This occasions a trip to Byron’s estate in Geneva, where amid marathon drinking sessions Byron makes his famous rainy-night challenge to his guests to each write a ghost story. Drawing on her feelings of abandonment and general disgust with the men in her life, Mary gives birth to Frankenstein’s monster. It’s here, and in Mary’s subsequent struggle to get the novel published with proper credit, that the film finally finds its center.
“Mary Shelley” is certainly lovely to look at, with Al-Mansour’s camera taking unusual detours through the candlelit interiors and overcast street scenes, creating a believable setting that never lapses into Merchant-Ivory familiarity. And as a tale of female empowerment, there’s something quite modern about the way it indicts the self-involvement of its male Romantics, who talk a good talk about breaking free of rigid gender conventions right until the moment it ceases to suit their needs.
But too often the film fails to assemble a satisfying arc for its many promising threads, and the screenplay has a strange habit of providing us with key information a scene or two after the one where it would be most useful to know it. It’s a tumultuous love story that never throbs with the proper passion, and an account of artistic awakening that arrives at its subject too late. The pieces are all here, but without being properly stitched together, it’s hard for the film to come to life.