Cert 12A 120mins Stars 3

There’s too little life or electricity in this somber period drama which explores Mary Shelley’s inspiration for the writing of her gothic science fiction masterpiece, Frankenstein.

Handsomely staged, it’s strangely heavy footed for a story groaning with passion, booze and characters committed to the concept of free love. 

It covers the extraordinary two years of Mary’s life from her meeting the celebrity radical poet Shelley to the publication, aged only 18, of her great work. 

Elle Fanning is curiously constrained as Mary, despite us being told she’s inherited the fiery independent mind of her mother, the famous feminist author, Mary Wollstonecraft. 

Douglas Booth is suitably dashing and wolfish as Percy Bysshe Shelley, a 21 year old married father who scandalously sweeps the 16 year old off her feet and away from her disapproving father. 

To avoid creditors they accept an invitation to Lord Byron’s Geneva chateau, taking Mary’s younger stepsister with them, and scene stealer Bel Powley, brings a welcome mischievous energy as Claire.

Tom Sturridge tries hard to provide some flamboyance as Byron, and the louche Lord suggests a writing competition and Mary pours her experiences into her novel of abandonment, loss, death and betrayal.

Director Haifaa al-Mansour presents Mary’s life as the story of a young woman of intelligence fighting to assert herself in a world where power and wealth is consolidated by men, for the pleasure and benefit of men.

It’s clearly an issue close to the heart of the female Saudi filmmaker and her film  touches on a lot of interesting, timely and important subjects. These include how the idea of romantic love facilitates male behaviour while entrapping women, the internal conflict between the romantic and rational, and the financial exploitation of women.

Plus it touches upon how the male gaze is used to frame ideas of female beauty and foreshadows the growth of the cosmetic surgery industry.

Unfortunately al-Mansour chooses to emphasises the message of emancipation over the melodrama. Mary and her sister’s swinging summer of sex, drugs and rock and roll with two notorious rakes is played with all the risque urgency of an episode of TV”s Lark Rise to Candleford. 

Disappointingly tame and tasteful, there’s barely a sniff of opium or a glimpse of a chandelier to swing from.

By the end we’re left in no doubt as to who the inspiration for Dr Frankenstein was, I just wish we’d seen more anger from the person who inspired his monster.


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