Misery lugs company in a perfunctory Mary Shelley flick

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Mary Shelley

2.5 out of 5

I first met Elle Fanning when she was three years old. I was attending a press junket for I Am Sam, starring her sister Dakota, and I shared an elevator ride with both Fannings and their mom.

I bring this up because the distance between that encounter and Elle Fanning playing the foremost Gothic horror writer Mary Shelley feels astronomical. The casting may be age appropriate, but Fanning is such a luminous screen presence it’s hard to buy her as the creator of the enduring Frankenstein mythos, let alone someone with darkness in her soul (Nicolas Winding Refn nearly managed to achieve that feat in the grossly underappreciated The Neon Demon).

Mary Shelley opens with the writer as a teenager, carefully balancing a complicated relationship with her stepmother, her ambitions as a writer and a frowned-upon taste for horror novels. Her existence is thrown out of whack when she meets the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth, Noah). A cad, a rebel, and a squanderer, Shelley has charm for days, but also spells bad news for Mary.

Their years together mostly sucked but at least the never-ending misery gave Shelley the inspiration for the nightmarish Frankenstein’s monster — her ticket to posterity.

Director Haifaa al-Mansour’s (Wadjda) approach to the story feels like reading Mary Shelley’s Wikipedia page. There’s no insight or personal touch to speak of. Often, the film becomes a grocery list of the sources Mary mines to create her magnum opus: abandonment by father (check); death in the family (check); introduction to galvanism, the theory that electricity could be used to resurrect a corpse (check).

Despite the lack of pizzazz and miscast leads (pretty boy Booth doesn’t quite scream “tormented”), Mary Shelley sputters along thanks to the rest of the performers (Stephen Dillane, Bel Powley, and Tom Sturridge as the vaguely sinister Lord Byron) and exquisite production design. The film picks up towards the end by linking Mary’s publishing woes (nobody would take her seriously) and the difficulties of female creators in today’s artistic landscape. Too little, too late.