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TIFF: Elle Fanning is "Mary Shelley"

Our ongoing adventures at TIFF

In the summer of 1816 legendary Romantic literary figures Mary Shelley (and stepsister Claire Clairmont), Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Dr John Polidori were holed up in a Swiss estate and challenged each other to write scary ghost stories. From that fateful contest two famous works of horror emerged ("Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus" in 1818 and "The Vampyre" in 1819 -- neither of them actual ghost stories!). Ken Russell attacked this collision of authors with his trademark sexual abandon and visual insanity in Gothic (1986) and his wasn't the first or last film to stare with fascination at that morbid contest 201 years ago. We return to that summer for a good chunk of Haifaa al-Mansour's Mary Shelley but with far different intent.

Haifaa al-Mansour, the first Saudi female film director (she previously directed Wadjda) is more interested in the trailblazing of Mary Shelley (née Godwin) as a female author -- and the unique challenges that came with her gender in the literary world of 1818 -- than in the creation of Frankenstein...

The film begins when Mary is only 15 and living with her father (Stephen Dillane), stepmother (Joanne Froggat) and stepsister Claire (Bel Powley). Mary's character has clearly been shaped by both her father's liberal philosophies and the mythos surrounding the radical mother she never knew, a feminist and polyamorous spirit way back in the 18th century. 

Despite the title and set-up this isn’t a true biopic or a character study so much as a romantic drama. Alas, Mary & Percy doesn't have the brand familiarity of Mary Shelley.

The film really takes off when stubborn teenager Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning) meets and begins a life-changing affair with the already married poet and philosopher Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). The couple eventually married but it wasn't a smooth ride to wedlock. Their romance was scandalous, tragic, enduring, and radical for its time.

The movie is, to its detriment, none of those things. (This is particularly problematic in the aftermath of the story beats where Percy comes off as villanous given his polyamorous nature, and yet we're meant to sympathisize with Mary's idolization of her mother who behaved with similar abandon.)

Haifaa al-Mansour has instead opted for traditional dramatic treatment and the cast remains buttoned up despite all the sex happening behind closed doors. This modesty of visuals does lend a certain repressed frisson and spark to unexpected bits like Lord Byron planting a surprise kiss on Percy, or Percy & Mary's extramarital liplock in a church. Still, one longs for a bit more subversion given all the verbal shoutouts to radicalism and impropriety.

But enough complaining. The traditional approach has its merits. The  settings, costumes, and lighting are expressive and the cast is lovely.

The actors gathered are an appealing time-traveling mix. Booth’s absurdly lush beauty and haunted eyes and Powley's expressive round face, which all but begs to be surrounded by period hairstyles, arrive straight from the early 19th century when the story takes place. Dillane is of course so timeless he could be a Doctor Who. Meanwhile Fanning and Sturridge, two charismatic actors who look perpetually delicious in period clothing but always feel modern in spirit attack their roles with current psychology. Fanning perhaps goes too far with the inner strength, like a 90s girlpower version of feminist fire who happens to be wearing 19th century drag; Show the struggle against your times, not just your triumph over it!

Powley, Fanning, Booth, and Sturridge in "Mary Shelley"

The surprise of the cast is the young Ben Hardy (Angel in X-Men: Apocalypse) as Dr Polidori. He's introduced as an insufferable dullard by the flamboyant Lord Byron (I mean, who isn't a dullard next to the notorious Lord Byron?) and initially barely registers. As the Dr comes more into focus, Hardy holds his own with the more famous actors with the juicier roles with a steadiness of character and quiet resolve that's quite charismatic in its own way. Powley, too, is a standout as Mary's gullible increasingly hedonistic sister. She delivers the film's most unexpectedly moving moment when she speaks to the universal appeal of Frankenstein's lonely monster.

All in all the ensemble is a strange but I think purposeful mix for al-Mansour's conservative 21st century approach to 19th century liberation. The gorgeous period clothes are the same way, sometimes worn or styled with casual modernity. A bare leg or hint of chest hair flashes here and there, reminding you of both the wildly vacillating incomes and libidos and progressiveness of the authors. It suits the story of these off-and-on-again young libertines, who died young but remained well ahead of their time.

Grade: B-
Oscar Chances: Unlikely though it has lovely visuals.



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Reader Comments (2)

Just read your Towelroad review of The Wife, Nathaniel. All I can say is yippee!!!!!

September 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

Interesting review. Filming 19th century sex scenes/sensuality is always tricky. It feels so jarring when it is voyeuristic in a 21st-century "everyone's seen porn so here's some naked bodies having sex" way. It usually takes away from the period feeling of the rest of the film. Sensuality and expressions of desire and desirability, like everything, change over time, so it's an interesting idea to toy with what it means to have sexual abandon in a period/class (19th C elite) that increasingly pushes against the sexual "excess"/libertinism of the eighteenth century. This worked beautifully in Bright Star. It's too bad that it doesn't quite work because other things read as anachronistic (girlpower, lol).

Good review and intriguing-sounding film. It also just makes me want to see Gothic (1986) because that might be more what I'm looking for.

September 14, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercatbaskets

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