Today Mary Shelley is a household name even if her best-known book, “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus,” the first true science fiction tale, was originally published without her name.
In director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s new biopic “Mary Shelley” Elle Fanning plays the title character as a rebellious daughter of philosophers, smitten with ghost stories. Dreaming of a life less ordinary—"I have a fire in my soul," she says early on—she begins a scandalous affair with married poet and radical Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth). Theirs is an unconventional life, embracing free love and literally and figuratively in the form of Mary’s step-sister Claire Claremont (Bel Powley).
As scandalizing as her lifestyle may have been to her contemporaries, it is her best-known book that sent shock waves through the publishing world. Written in 1816 as part of a competition between Mary, aged 18, her husband, flamboyant Romantic poet Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) and writer John Polidori (Ben Hardy) to see who could write the best ghost story, “Frankenstein” becomes a way for Mary to funnel her feelings—the heartache of losing her family amid the scandal and her sense of otherness—into print.
“Mary Shelley” is a nicely turned out film, with beautiful period particulars and an eye toward detail in décor. It is a shame then, that director Al-Mansour hasn’t applied the same level of rigour to the script. In what feels like an attempt to make Mary Shelley’s search for her voice relatable to a modern audience her daring edges have been blunted. Her radical lifestyle is alluded to but the presentation feels sterile, funnelled through the prism of romantic drama rather than history. Fewer scenes of Mary and Percy arguing and more of the author’s ground breaking lust for life and the movie might have been a more fitting tribute to a true original.
“Mary Shelley,” despite a solid performance from Fanning, is a conventional look at an unconventional life.