Elle Fanning portrays the title character in “Mary Shelley,” which explores the life of the famed writer and the origins of her book “Frankenstein.”
Elle Fanning portrays the title character in “Mary Shelley,” which explores the life of the famed writer and the origins of her book “Frankenstein.”Credit…IFC Films

Mary ShelleyDirected by Haifaa Al-MansourBiography, Drama, RomancePG-132 hours

By A.O. Scott

  • May 23, 2018

“Mary Shelley” is a rarity: a literary biopic with an argument. This is not to say that the film, directed Haifaa al-Mansour (“Wadjda”You will not find the usual pleasures associated with the genre. You’ll find candles and quill pens, Regency dresses, and celebrity shout-outs (Samuel Taylor Coleridge).You will also see the feverish attempts to communicate both passion and discipline in the writing process. Good-looking, young actors can also be seen claiming poetry and prose with crisp accents and grammatically flawless English.

But rather than smother Mary Shelley — author of “Frankenstein,” daughter of two eminent writers and wife of another — with soft cushions of antiquarian cultural prestige, Ms. al-Mansour and the screenwriter, Emma Jensen, sharpen the sense of Shelley’s modernity. Elle Fanning plays Shelley with sensitivity and intelligence that is remarkable.

Mary is first seen in motion as she sprints home from London’s cemetery, where she had been writing furiously at Mary Wollstonecraft, her mother. Mary, who died shortly after giving life to her daughter, was also the author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” a work of 18th-century feminist thought that has yet to lose its radicalism or its relevance. Wollstonecraft’s husband, the novelist, philosopher and bookseller William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), has remarried, and Mary must contend with a mean stepmother (Joanne Froggatt) who disapproves of her writing.Video00:002:062:06Trailer: ‘Mary Shelley’A preview of the film.

William sends Mary to Scotland to maintain peace in the household. Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), a dreamy dirtbag lit bro who will in due course die young and be remembered as one of the great English poets of his time. Percy is 21 and has already abandoned one wife and child, but his capital-R romantic idealism includes a few clauses about free love that chime with Mary’s rebellious inheritance. He has soft lips, delicate cheekbones, and a knack for rhymes. Mary soon ran off with him, and she brought Claire (Bel Powley), with her on this adventure.

It turns out to be more difficult than Mary (16) had anticipated. There is tragedy, scandal, money trouble and Percy’s mercurial (though in some ways entirely predictable) behavior. Mary and Percy’s commitment to unconventional and liberated lives is different for each other. The film also emphasizes the difference between theory and practice in equality between the sexes. While traditional roles can oppress and stultify females, the easy-going hedonism Mary finds with Percy (a scene-stealing Tom Sturridge), is not a bargain.

But Byron’s Swiss chateau is nonetheless where the seed of “Frankenstein” is planted, and “Mary Shelley” is as much a biography of that book as of its author. The book originates during a highbrow parlor game at Byron’s, where Mary, Claire and Percy are hanging out with a physician named John Polidori (Ben Hardy). But the film expands on this origin story, suggesting various streams of Mary’s experience that feed into her chronicle of a misunderstood monster. Her childhood fondness for scary tales and the literary influence of her father (author of the Gothic novel “Caleb Williams”) combine with her own grief, frustration and isolation to produce a masterpiece.

The account is both plausible and moving. It serves as both a defense of genre fiction, and a celebration of female creativity. But at times the differences between male and female writers can seem a bit schematic, in a way that undermines Mary’s intellectual autonomy. William, Percy and Byron are understood to be motivated by ideas, while Mary’s inspirations come from the realm of feeling. “Frankenstein” is thus, above all, a triumph of expression, the quasi-therapeutic transformation of pain into art. Some of the durable insights it offers to readers — into the risks of scientific inquiry and technological innovation, into the philosophical complexity of human identity — are slighted in favor of its cathartic power in the life of the writer.

Still, the acknowledgment of Mary Shelley seems long overdue, and “Mary Shelley” is a reminder that England in the early 19th century remains a rich repository of stories and characters, an era that can be made to feel charmingly quaint and bracingly modern, on both the page and the screen.