It’s one of the most fascinating stories in the history of literature – how an eighteen year old girl, albeit the daughter of two respected writers and the partner of an acclaimed poet, managed to create one of the most seminal novels of all time – a book that has never been out of print since its release in 1818, one that has been filmed and staged countless times… and a book, moreover, that is a brilliant metaphor for womankind’s lot in the male-dominated society of the period.
Here, Mary is played by Elle Fanning, doing that sleepy-eyed, sulky thing she does so perfectly, while the role of Percy Bysshe Shelley is played by Douglas Booth. Indeed, at times, it’s hard to decide which one of them is the most photogenic. When we first encounter Mary, she’s sixteen years old, living with her father, the bookseller William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), her argumentative stepmother, Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggat), and her stepsister, Claire (Bel Powley). Mary is obsessed with reading Gothic horror stories and is already making her first tentative attempts at writing fiction but, as her father tells her, she needs to stop imitating others and ‘find her own voice.’
On a rare visit to one of her cousins in Scotland, she encounters the handsome Percy Shelley and there’s an instant attraction between them. Summoned back to London because of Claire’s fictional ‘illness’, Mary is astonished when Percy turns up at her father’s bookshop, having enlisted William as his patron. It’s only a matter of time before Mary and Percy are in the throes of a full-blown romance. It’s not all plain sailing though. For one thing, there’s the fact that Percy already has a wife and daughter, a little detail that he has completely neglected to mention. But Mary manages to put her doubts aside. She’s smitten.
And then, to the complete disgust of polite society, the two lovers decide to run away together, taking Claire along for the ride. The three of them live a dissolute existence, struggling to make money and frittering away whatever they earn on alcohol and extravagant parties. Percy believes in free love and it isn’t long before, much to Mary’s dismay, he’s drawing Claire into his amorous clutches. Then, the trio find themselves invited by Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) to stay at his villa in Switzerland, where he and his personal physician, Dr John Polidori (Ben Hardy), are currently holidaying – and where all the elements are in place for the creation of a Gothic masterpiece.
Haifaa al Monsour’s film sticks fairly closely to the facts and, despite the odd contemporary-sounding phrase, Emma Jensen’s screenplay easily manages to hold the attention. If Shelley comes across as a privileged idiot, he’s totally eclipsed by Byron, who, as portrayed by Sturridge, is easily the most slappable person in nineteenth century Europe, prone to making vile utterances about the superiority of men and engaging in macho posturing. Indeed, amongst the young male characters, only Polidori emerges as genuinely decent, though the treatment he experiences at the hands of the two poets might give him good cause to be surly.
This is a good movie, handsomely staged and capably directed. It may be the first time that the extraordinary nature of Mary’s achievement has been fully realised onscreen. If the film is a little short on fireworks, it’s nonetheless offers a fascinating insight into the scandalous events that surrounded the creation of Frankenstein.