Cinema Review: Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was barely twenty-one years old when she wrote Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, thus creating a ‘monster’ that has been referenced in countless movies while establishing a permanent niche in our collective imagination. Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour (who completed her film studies at the University of Sydney) has focused less on that famous novel (for that, see James Whale’s 1931 masterpiece) as she has on the tempestuous and, at the time scandalous relationship that Mary (Elle Fanning) and her half-sister Claire (Bel Powley) shared with Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), who was already a poet of renown when they met. Given Al-Mansour’s background, you would expect the piece to be the feminist statement that it is, but she averts stridency in her telling of the story and, by looking instead at the personalities involved, she strikes her blow for equality and recognition even more profoundly. As the daughter of writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (who died of septicaemia just days after giving birth), young Mary was raised in a free-thinking home to be of an ambitious, independent disposition. When Percy arrives at a soiree at which she is present, Mary, still a girl, is swept off her feet (and why not? Booth is even prettier than Fanning.) Percy’s circumstances result in Mary and star-struck Claire being ostracised from the family, but for Mary it’s a case of ‘don’t wish too hard … ’ as she realises that the Bohemian lifestyle is no less dismissive of her gender than what she left behind. If Percy comes out of this with his reputation somewhat tarnished (odd, that dickheads can write such dreamy poetry), the indulgent Lord Byron (after whom the Bay was NOT named) is presented as an absolute grub. The nineteenth century was not a good time for women with literary aspirations, so Byron and Percy exemplify the self-centred patriarchy that prevailed in artistic circles of the period. Sets and costumes are realistic and performances shed light on the deep sadness that came to be epitomised by the ‘monster.’

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