Mary Shelley

Elle Fanning in a scene from the movie Mary Shelley. (Ster-Kinekor)
Elle Fanning in a scene from the movie Mary Shelley. (Ster-Kinekor)


2/5 Stars


A love affair between poet Percy Shelley and 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin resulted in a life that inspired 'Frankenstein.'


Mary Shelley has always been a fascinating writer, a woman that wrote one of the cornerstone pieces of horror fiction that still influences the world today. She was always a political radical, much like her parents, but that fire seemed somewhat muted in the on-screen adaptation of her love affair with Percy Shelley.

While Elle Fanning and the enigmatic Douglas Booth both gave inspiring performances that encapsulated the passion between the two literary icons, the plot came up lacklustre and failed to bring the average, non-literary fan audience into the fold.

A 16-year-old Mary is feeling unfulfilled in her life with her father, stepmother and stepsister, until she meets the boisterous Percy Shelley – a famous poet known for his philandering ways. A passion ignites between the two and despite Percy’s current wife, they decide to run away together and become pariahs of society. These hardships lead to the Mary’s most famous work – Frankenstein.

While it would appear that the film follows closely the events of Mary’s life, the movie-colouring in of her life felt like a paint-by-numbers game of emotions instead of a fluid, natural progression of plot points. Every reaction to certain events was superficially melodramatic, especially undeserving of Fanning’s great appetite for the character which she plays with fervour, who would in real life have been appalled at the lazy writing. Percy’s character was also a wooden, shallow depiction of the tortured poet, and while the focus of the film is deservedly on Mary, it falls flat without a stronger Percy. 

As for the men in the film, they are all very much depicted like the Doctor Frankenstein in Mary’s story – creating monsters through their own hubris. She sees herself as a monster created by the fallacies of Bryce and her father’s rejection, and Lord Byron’s rejection of her stepsister also creates a ‘monster’ of sorrow.

The part of the film where she finally writes her book (which takes a long time to get to) and you start seeing Frankenstein’s symbology of loss and trauma, you get a new appreciation for the work, and might even be inspired to tackle on the story in its original format. This is where the film gets it right in capturing Mary’s spark, but the journey to get there is so arduous that it is almost lost on the audience.

What is quite interesting is that the very British Mary Shelley is directed by Saudi Arabia’s first woman filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour, whose film Wadjda – a story of a Saudi girl entering a Koran recitation competition in order to buy a bike - met worldwide acclaim.

While it’s great that she hasn’t been boxed in with her movie choices, it does feel like perhaps the subject matter ran away from her, which could happen to any director. Her direction of her leading stars was exceptional, but the script seemed to have little direction, which may be a fault of the writer – this is Emma Jensen’s first produced screenplay - rather than the director. 

For its biographical content, Mary Shelley is an interesting watch if you’re a literary aficionado interested in the Romantics of that time, but on a film-level it fails to deliver an impactful story of a women’s fight for her place in life, encumbered by cliché emotion and rigid writing.



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