Mary Shelley has all the makings of a classic teen girl coming-of-age film. There’s a passionate, star-crossed romance, spats with pseudo-intellectual sexist bros who undermine our heroine’s intelligence, drunken parties, and nights filled with scribbling in a notebook instead of sleeping. The themes are so familiar, so well-worn, that you might forget this is a movie about Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, who wrote the groundbreaking sci-fi horror story when she was just a teenager in the early 19th Century.
The surprisingly limited scope of Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, is precisely what makes it a drag. Elle Fanning, who’s continuing to successfully move on from the fragile, doll-like roles of her youth into harsher territory, stars as 16-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin, the daughter of philosopher William Godwin and feminist advocate Mary Wollstonecraft. She possesses dreams of being a great writer who can make readers’ “blood curdle and their hearts quicken.” And when poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth) steps into the frame as her father’s talented protégé, it seems that Mary has met her intellectual match.
But just as Mary literally opens her first love note from Percy does she run, quite conveniently even by movie standards, into his wife on the street, their daughter in tow. Thankfully, Percy shares the same ideas about marriage as Mary and her own parents—that it’s an outdated institution that restricts free love—and he’s basically sort-of single. And so, the two run away together to live in societal sin and make art with abandon, bringing along Mary’s hilarious, ditzy step-sister Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley). But debt, death, and depression plague the relationship, all of which is run through the movie at breakneck speed, as does a deep misunderstanding of how exactly this open arrangement is going to work when Percy seems to be the only party carelessly indulging in it.
Thus, Mary Shelley becomes less a serious take on the author’s early life and more like a humorless episode of Gossip Girl, particularly when all three characters end up in Geneva at the bachelor pad of poet Lord Byron (easily the Chuck Bass of the group), where he challenges everyone to write a ghost story, with Mary’s to become Frankenstein.
To al-Mansour’s defense, she has said clearly that Mary Shelley is not a biopic but a “classic coming-of-age story, mixed with a love story.” And while it’s great to be transparent about the intentions of the film, it still feels like there’s a gaping hole in the script. The biggest problem facing Mary Shelley is that it turns the titular character’s literary interests and her masterpiece Frankenstein, which we wait nearly the entire movie to see the quick creation of, into an afterthought. There are moments throughout the movie where we get tiny flickers of inspiration for the text, such as when Shelley attends a show exploring the reanimation of a dead frog, but those revelatory moments are barely afforded the same screen time as Shelley’s romantic dramas. Even the devastating death of Shelley’s own child is depicted off screen with bizarre casualness, despite the fact that many have argued Frankenstein may have been greatly inspired by this loss.
Watching Mary Shelley, it’s unclear what exactly about the author captivated al-Mansour. Every moment of Shelley’s life realized in this movie—her relationships, her pregnancy, her writing career—feels flat or structured in such a way as to make Shelley’s life into as much of a typical teen romance as possible. Moments of feminist defiance are rendered down to dialogue that feels like it’s been spooned directly from a can. (“If I’m old enough to bear children, I’m old enough to put a pen to paper!” Shelley says in a scene confronting a sexist publisher.) And while Mary Shelley privileges, at every turn, the titular character’s relationship with Percy, I found myself wishing it had instead privileged her relationship with Frankenstein’s monster.