‘Mary Shelley’ Film Review: Beauty? Yes! Truth? Not so much… (& new podcast!)
“Her greatest love inspired her darkest creation.” So reads the poster tagline of the 2018 film Mary Shelley, starring Elle Fanning. A creative re-imagining of Mary Shelley’s life leading up to the publication of Frankenstein – the novel for which Shelley is still best known – the film presents itself as a biopic that will reveal “the real life story of Mary Shelley”, which, it posits, is “the life that inspired Frankenstein.” Such a premise sounds wonderful indeed: Mary Shelley deserves a lot more attention, and her life was certainly one of the most exciting, tragic and inspiring that you could read about. Even a chronological reenactment of events recorded in her journals and letters (of which there are many) would reveal a wealth of real-life drama. Certainly too, elements of her life inspired her writing. However, there is one problem, and it’s a rather big one, following such claims to truth as the film makes.
You see, for all of its beautiful scenery, detailed costumes, lavish design and gorgeous cinematography (and it is truly gorgeous), not to mention its compelling performances, especially from Elle Fanning and her co-stars (principally Douglas Booth as Percy Shelley, and Bel Powley as Claire Clairmont), the film takes a rather sharp turn away from the actual historical facts and instead re-imagines and even invents new material in favour of its romantic fairytale premise: that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was written to express the grief she felt at being abandoned by Percy Shelley (in this metaphor, she is the monster and Percy her creator – you can decide how romantic that really is). Sadly (well actually, perhaps its rather a good thing), this just isn’t the truth.
Well, not completely. That is to say, emotions of grief, loss and abandonment undoubtedly do resonate through the novel, and we might well connect these overtones partly with Mary Shelley’s passionate affair with Percy (though not, perhaps, in the way the film suggests) – as well as with the loss of their children, their difficult financial situations and living arrangements, the problems of balancing bohemian, radical philosophy with the practicalities of living in early-nineteenth-century England, and all of the other wonderful and tragic events in her life, including the loss of her mother ten days after her birth – but there was a whole lot more that went into this novel.
To reduce one of the most complex, philosophical, intertextual, scientifically-informed, publicly and politically engaged novels of the time down to a metaphor of a woman’s heartbreak in her youthful love affair is an injustice to say the least, not only to Mary Shelley (who, as a “female writer”, has long suffered such reductive assessments of her work), but also to Percy Shelley, and to women’s writing more broadly. In short, Mary Shelley’s actual life (of which we are incredibly well-informed, with a wealth of first-hand written accounts as well as several insightful critical biographies) had enough tragedy and drama and difficulties to overcome without re-imagining Percy Shelley as an emotionally abusive, narcissistic drunkard whose terrible treatment and neglect of Mary inspires the horrific tale of a monster (Mary) abandoned.
Such a portrayal overlooks the way that Mary and Percy worked together in their creative pursuits (a collaborative relationship that went both ways and benefited them both), and the way that Percy was as much attracted to Mary’s intellectual gifts and inquiring mind (they both read voraciously and widely) as her other qualities. Her interest in science was something shared by Percy, and they both engaged passionately in intellectual discussion and debate about the latest developments and their shocking ripples through society. Frankenstein, as Mary Shelley herself records, was partly inspired by long conversations about such subjects held between Percy and Byron at the Villa Diodati (a stark contrast to the film’s representation of both of these intellectual giants guffawing and baffooning about while Mary patiently attempts to focus privately on her scientific interests: at one point Byron even leaps onto a couch and screeches like a monkey).
In short, the film was visually stunning (apart from the conspicuous lack of European mountainous scenery – conspicuous because it had an equally large part in ‘inspiring’ the novel Frankenstein), but more fanciful fairytale than historically accurate biopic. It’s worth a watch for the creative performances, but with the lack of historical accuracy kept firmly in mind. If it inspires more people to read Shelley’s work, then this is wonderful. If it inspires them to read more about the actual real-life “true story” that was her life, and within which she composed an incredibly broad-ranging set of novels, dramas, poems, short stories, essays and other works, then so much the better.
WANT A MORE DETAILED REVIEW?
NEW PODCAST! LISTEN TO THE FULL REVIEW OF MARY SHELLEY:
Dr Kirstin Mills joins Dr Stephanie Russo on Macquarie University’s ‘From the Lighthouse’ podcast to discuss their thoughts on the film Mary Shelley. Having attended a preview screening in Sydney the night before (courtesy of Transmission films), they met in studio the next day to chat in detail about the film, including what they loved, and what, as literary historians, they weren’t so keen about. They cover the real characters and relationship between Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley, as well as their surrounding acquaintances, chat about the real tragedies of Mary’s life and inspirations behind her novel, and discuss the broader implications of loosely historical biographical films in a context of women’s writing, and public perceptions of Mary Shelley in particular.
Listen to podcast above or follow the link to the podcast website below:
[ https://www.fromthelighthouse.org/2018/from-the-filmhouse-with-stephanie-and-kirstin-reviewing-mary-shelley-2018 ]
Mary Shelley is in Australian cinemas from July 5. Find out more information here:
Note: Thank you to Transmission films for kindly inviting me to attend the preview screening in Sydney. All opinions expressed in this blog post are my own.