Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley is undeniably a fascinating historical figure who wrote a defining piece of gothic horror that will never die. So, it’s kind of strange that there’s no definitive biopic about her life and director/co-writer Haifaa Al Mansour’s take seemed like something that might fit the bill. While the movie is undeniably beautifully produced with some strong performances and wonderful images, Mary Shelley sadly falls short of its namesake. This feels more like the world’s biggest and most beautiful Frankenstein book report than a movie.
We first meet young Mary in the form of Elle Fanning’s hyper intelligent teenager who tells ghost stories to her siblings, works in her father’s bookstore, and escapes to write in a cemetery (holy foreshadowing Batman!). Then she meets the poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), who whisks her away for a life of unconventional love that ends up being a nosedive of poisonous passions, neglect, and the death of a child. Plus she sees some early experiments in lightshow frog corpse re-animation. You know, all the themes of Frankenstein. By the time the fateful night at Lord Byron’s chateau leads to a contest of horror story writing, it’s tough to sit through the montages of nightmare and creation that are both beautifully mounted and brain-bashingly obvious. Mary Shelley’s life has been reduced to a Frankenstein origin story and little more.
Any discussion of Shelley’s later works or life is little more than postscript. This is all a big Frankenstein-building montage and one that checks off Walk Hard biopic clichés with unfortunate regularity. It’s a shame the script is so dull and predictable because Al Mansour shows a genuine gift for atmosphere and world-building that would be better served elsewhere, while the cast all deliver memorably eccentric performances out of the cardboard types they’ve been given.
With a more ambitious script, this could have been a wonderful ode to Mary Shelley. Instead, it’s just another lump of Oscar bait ready to be fed to the awards season wolves.