Political Film Review #568

Mary Shelley (played by Elle Fanning) wrote Frankenstein based on her experiences in the tiny free love community of Britain in the 1810s. She was the daughter of feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died a few days after Mary was born. Her father was the philosopher William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), who ran a bookstore and hosted famous authors. One day in 1814, 21-year-old Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth) appears at a gathering, meets sixteen-year-old Mary, and the two soon begin a romance. But Shelley, already married, eventually explains to Mary that he is separated from his wife, as the mutual feeling ended some time back. When Godwin and his second wife realize that Mary’s relationship will be a scandal, he gives Mary an ultimatum to stop the relationship. Mary then moves in with Shelley, soon settling in London, along with her stepsister Claire (Bel Powley), and Mary has a child. But Mary is unaware that Shelley is a libertine, so that becomes a temporary hurdle in their relationship. One day Shelley is evicted from his residence, and the three, with Mary carrying the baby, seek shelter, going cross town in the rain. As a result, the baby dies. One evening, Mary and Shelley observe an electrical exhibition that gives her an idea about science fiction. Meanwhile, Claire has been carrying on a relationship with Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge). One summer, all three stay at the Swiss estate of Lord Byron and his good friend John William Polidori (Ben Hardy), who is seeking to market a book entitled Vampire. Mary experiences more grief when she sees her husband drunk, presumably sleeping with someone during a night, and Lord Byron tells Claire that they are not lovers. Back in London, Mary completes her book, but no publisher will give her a contract because she is a young woman (though her birthmother did publish). The only way to get the book in print is for Shelley to write the introduction of an anonymously authored book, which is such a great success that her father brings out a second edition with her name listed as the author. Polidori, similarly, has to allow Lord Byron to pretend to author of his book. But the main theme of the film is that Mary stood her ground whenever challenged, making a mark in literature that remains largely unacknowledged to the present. She was much more of a rebel than the film suggests.

The film leaves out a lot in Mary’s life, particularly what happened to bisexual Shelley, who drowns in a lake in Italy during 1822. During his “disappearances” from her life, he dodged creditors. A feminist-oriented film, director Haifaa Al-Mansour also fails to mention that Shelley’s essays were so radical that he would have been jailed for their content. After his death, Mary returned to London, continued writing, and showed devotion to her husband by getting them published when times were more favorable for freedom of speech before her death in 1851. Although Thomas Hogg (Jack Hickey) is featured in the film, no mention is made that he and Percy were lovers before he met Mary. She was not as naive as portrayed. Another missing thread is the fact that Shelley’s first wife committed suicide in 1816, and Mary acquired the last name “Shelley” when the two married soon afterward. Mary’s philosophy of political change was to recommend that more compassion should be inserted into civil society. MH