Film review: ‘MARY SHELLEY’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

A film that focuses on the period in which Mary Shelly wrote her sci-fi horror classic Frankenstein should be a thrilling prospect for anyone with a literary bent but director and co-writer Haifaa al-Mansour has transformed the biopic, Mary Shelley, into a slightly steamy, mildly gothic romance between two Derek Zoolander-approved really really good-looking people.

Elle Fanning plays Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin who, as a teenager, begins an intimate relationship with the famed poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth) when he comes to work for her publisher and political activist father William (Stephen Dillane). Courting scandal in early 19th century London by living together unmarried, they embark on a troubled romance that sees them scraping a living and fleeing creditors while hobnobbing with likes of Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge).

Fanning plays Mary with an engaging if not riveting mix of fragility and determination but little of the rebelliousness of which she was apparently known or the darkness that might have compelled her to produce a novel like Frankenstein. Her assertiveness in the face of a sexist publishing world who don’t want a woman’s name on a book like Frankenstein is uplifting but this film is hardly a feminist triumph.

As Percy Shelley, Douglas Booth, who looks like a hybrid of Robert Pattinson and Ansel Elgort, is more silver-tongued pretty boy than literary genius but he’s still a memorable screen presence. Tom Sturridge is amusing as Lord Byron (with whom Mary and Percy spent an infamous holiday in Geneva) but he’s not the show-stopper a character like that should have been. Sturridge, who looks like he’s from an early 80’s New Romantic band, depicts Byron more as a creepy reprobate than the famously impassioned artist.

The film offers samplings of the various poets’ works but not enough to satisfy devotees. Instead Haifaa al-Mansour employs quasi-poetic dialogue that sounds a little odd as the characters spout long-winded verse at each other while trudging through the mud of 19th century London.

She and cinematographer David Ungaro do, however, fashion a suitably vivid goth-influenced 19th century world where life looks pretty harsh for most people.

With its emphasis on youthful romance, this isn’t the celebration of literary inspiration it should have been but there are entrancing moments.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Biopic/period piece/ romance/ drama.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Haifaa al-Mansour.

Release date: 5th July 2018.

Running time: 121 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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