FILM REVIEW: Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley (2018) is not the story of Mary Shelley’s life, despite the title. Her life was one long gothic nightmare. She endured untold grief, beginning with her mother (famous proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft) who died giving birth to her. She then outlived as a young adult, in a relatively short period time, her half-sister Fanny, her husband the poet Percy Shelley, her close step-sister Claire, her friend Lord Byron, her father, and three of her young children. She had only one son survive childhood despite multiple pregnancies. Mary was an author not of one sole masterpiece but instead supported herself and her son by writing. She wrote histories, travelogues, four other novels (including the first post-apocalyptic science fiction novel The Last Man) and is largely responsible for compiling the writings of Percy into the texts widely referenced today. Instead of attempting to cover any of this, Mary Shelley depicts a very brief period in her life; the burgeoning of her relationship with Percy and her first draft of her most famous book – Frankenstein.

There is one truly satisfying moment. Percy gets punched in the face by downtrodden fellow writer John Polidori. Percy is surely one of the most infuriating literary spouses of all time, so I couldn’t help but cheer, even though it most likely never happened. However, there are other inaccurate moments like this and a general lacklustre attitude towards the subject of Mary’s life which let the film down immensely. This is a deep disappointment especially considering the material the film had to work with. There is a great cult masterpiece that could be made from her life, but this is not it. There is also a rollicking melodrama to be made of all the characters in her life, from her parents Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin to Percy and Byron; but this is not it either. And it’s difficult to determine who this film is aimed at. Mary’s life is too wild and painful to fit neatly into a quaint period drama, and so viewers looking for a romance are not satisfied, and neither are those knowledgeable about her.

The cinematography, the score, and the acting are so-so. The only character played just right is Mary’s irritating yet beloved step sister Clair Clairmont. The film doesn’t emphatically go into any depth or range about either Mary’s writing or her relationship with Percy. Instead we have a drippy, faux- Twilight (2008) teen romance drama, with the actress playing Mary deeply miscast and forced to talk in a droning vampire-esque tone. It was like watching a bad TV-made version of Interview with a Vampire (1994), without the style or excitement. Mary was strange, sharply intelligent, and a woman who commanded respect even at a young age, and it takes more to bring her to life on screen than a pretty girl moping about in a stupid voice.

Most films struggle to portray writers on screen, because the ineffable magic of writing is done in writer’s heads and on the page (or keyboard). This makes portraying them on the big screen boring to watch, and what’s more, no-one really knows where, specifically, inspiration comes from. This film is not particularly innovative in this regard, and in fact portrays Mary’s writing process as passive, dictated to by other male writers. Her father first accuses her of little else than imitation, and her so-called inspiration for Frankenstein is shown as being drawn from watching men conduct science experiments. The script clumsily and repetitively refers to Mary’s ‘interest in science’ yet we never see her so-called interest – science is only presented to her as a male act. There is not so much as a shot of her leafing through a scientific tract or looking curiously about her.

But these aren’t yet the worst aspects of the film. The historical inaccuracies, by both omission and additions are troubling. The most significant of these additions comes when Thomas Jefferson Hogg, a friend of Percy’s, attends on Mary alone and he is portrayed as nothing more than a sleaze who tries to force himself on Mary. We witness a brief attempted rape which she only manages to avoid by hitting him. This is entirely made up. Hogg did make advances to Mary, and Percy encouraged them in support of his principles of ‘free love’ and most importantly to justify his own reckless philandering. However, Hogg’s interest in Mary was politely rejected and he was perfectly happy with that. Instead they developed such a deep platonic friendship that she wrote to him after losing a child and begged him to visit, asking for his presence as she describes him in her letter as ‘so calm a creature’. This begs the question, why introduce an implied rape scene at all? Especially considering the film was written and directed by women. It’s extremely sad to see the perpetuation of rape culture is embedded so deeply in our storytelling that even women feel obliged to insert them in, to the contrary of historical evidence. If the scene is meant to indicate Mary’s toughness, this is an insult to rape survivors everywhere. It is simply not that easy to fight off a rapist with a well-placed fist.

But it’s not only the lesser characters that receive this treatment. Despite the focus on her relationship with Percy their partnership is again inaccurate and clumsily portrayed. Percy’s contact with Mary’s father William was entirely more vexed and less principled – while Percy and Mary were living in sin William’s main concern was to urge Percy to keep sending him money. William thaws more fully towards Percy only once they were married – not at all due to the publication of Frankenstein as the film presents. And yes, Percy and Mary did get married – another thing the film oddly leaves out. Admittedly they did this solely for the sake of some semblance of propriety and the wedding itself didn’t mean much to either of them; but the omission from the film is peculiar considering it is this short aspect of their lives the film focuses on. A scene where they argue out the merits of marriage after his first wife dies would have been fascinating. Instead the film shows their love affair being one where Mary is betrayed by Shelley (although this is only very briefly suggested instead of his relentless sleeping around) and shows her essentially taming him. The film closes with an absurd scene where they reunite and snog at her father’s bookshop.

Their relationship was far more complicated than a young couple falling out over a male partner sowing some wild oats. Percy was selfish, reckless, thoughtless, domineering, and probably shagged Mary’s stepsister along with his many other dalliances.  He was also a poetic genius, a brave radical, a defiant intellectual and Mary loved him. She loved him in part because of his commitment to free love, not in spite of, and they had a deep connection throughout their committed relationship. The film depicts Percy as misunderstanding Mary’s Frankenstein as we see him suggesting it goes in an entirely different direction. But it wasn’t that simple – he nurtured her writing and tried to help edit her work. The level of his input in Frankenstein has been argued over centuries of academic theorising; but it cannot be doubted that he supported her endeavour.

There were many twists and turns to their life together post-Frankenstein; more miscarriages, more affairs, more conflicts. Their marriage fraught and tense, the unceasing drama only ended in Italy, when Shelley took it upon himself to build a boat and go sailing on it, despite being unable to even swim. Mary sensed the foolhardiness of this latest scheme and despite their differences begged him to stay. He wrote back and urged her to tell him how she was feeling, describing her as his best, his dearest. This was the last note he would ever write to her. His lack of experience was his undoing; the boat was unseaworthy, and he died at sea. He was not yet thirty. Mary was twenty-five. It can be argued that the entirety of a life cannot be condensed into the few hours allotted in a film, but surely this great tragedy in Mary’s life is worth including.

The problem with reducing a great woman writer down to one squabble with her boyfriend and a few potential (male) inspirations for her masterpiece, is that is diminishes our literary history for all of us. Mary was the mother of science fiction, a woman who lived by her pen, and a survivor. The only redeeming feature of Mary Shelley is it chooses it’s subject so well and might inspire further adaptations and examinations of her life and work.

Review by T.S.J. Harling

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