Sunday, October 14, 2018

film review on VOD: Mary Shelley

Written & Directed by: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Featuring: Elle Fanning, Maisie Williams, Bel Powley, Douglas Booth

ChinoKino score: B-

Review by Allan Tong

When this biopic about the 19th-century author of Frankenstein unspooled in theatres last year, it was greeted with apathy, if not disdain. However, it deserves another look on VOD. Elle Fanning carries this uneven film as teenage Mary Shelley, who rebels against her parents by eloping with the flighty, hedonist poet, Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). Leading a life of excess, she arrives at wisdom--and a landmark novel.

Dragging along her younger sister (finely played by Bel Powley), Mary journeys through a world of casual sex and earthly pleasures without a thought (or penny) for tomorrow. The Romantics, as the Shelleys and their ilk were called, were the hippies of early-1800's England, reacting against the uptight rationality and tradition that had straightjacketed England.

Mary Shelley and the Romantics celebrated beauty and imagination, but lacked foresight. Free love was fine, but it also destroyed relationships. And living for today meant being broke tomorrow, especially with a baby in tow, as Shelley had until her infant died.

Fanning does a good job fleshing out the naive, idealistic Mary Shelley who yearns to escape her oppressive stepmother, then transitions into a hardened but wiser young woman. She survives her baby's death, Percy's many infidelities, and poverty. In fact, a feminist streak runs through this film that will strike a chord in today's audiences. Then again, Mary's experiences are supposed to inspire the monster in Frankenstein, a creature who is misunderstood and abused. [spoiler alert] But I didn't sense that Percy horribly mistreated Mary Shelley. Sure, he was a cad, but he also edited her manuscript and championed his wife as the true author of Frankenstein in an age which forbade women from writing books. He stood by her. (The vampiric Lord Byron is the true monster in this film, but that's another story.)

Mary Shelley is a  valid glimpse at the creative process of a pioneering artist. Worth a second look.

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