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Mary Shelley is a gothic romance that can’t be raised from the dead

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Elle Fanning plays the author of Frankenstein

Photo: TIFF

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the Toronto International Film Festival.

Film festivals are a great opportunity to spot trends, and at 2017’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, a wave of movies emerged tackling the issue of gender discrimination and the struggle for women to be heard in a world dominated by men. A gothic love story doesn’t necessarily seem like an obvious fit for that trend, but that’s exactly the case with Mary Shelley, a film tackling the life of the famed author of Frankenstein.

Directed by groundbreaking Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour, Mary Shelley details the author’s relationship with the poet Percy Shelley and the events that eventually lead to her writing her seminal novel. It’s a beautifully shot film exploring a truly fascinating story, but Mary Shelley never really becomes as moving or as captivating as it should be. It’s a shallow look at an incredible life, and it will ultimately leave audiences searching for a more emotional and resonant recounting of the author’s story.

Photo: TIFF

What’s the genre?

Historical drama. There’s a spooky, mind’s-eye flash at one point as Mary gets the inspiration for what will eventually become Frankenstein, but don’t expect much in the way of horror.

What’s it about?

It’s London in the early 1800s, and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning) aspires to become an author like her father (Game of Thrones’ Stephen Dillane, showing a somewhat softer side than he did as Stannis Baratheon). But Mary clashes constantly with her stepmother, and as a temporary fix she is sent away to Scotland to stay with some family friends. That’s where she first meets Shelley (Douglas Booth) and is instantly intrigued by his romantic, nonconformist views on life and love. Eventually, Mary returns home, but Shelley follows soon thereafter, and the two quickly fall in love — even though he’s already married with a child on the way.

Their relationship is considered so scandalous that the couple leaves England altogether, bringing Mary’s sister Claire along to rescue her from what they see as a hostile environment. Mary soon realizes that life with Shelley is not as idyllic as she had perhaps hoped, however. They deal with money problems, and Mary is torn between her ideological support of open relationships and the fact that she doesn’t want to share Shelley. Along the way, she suffers loss and disappointment, all of which come into play when she writes her novel.

What’s it really about?

Mary Shelley shares a thematic focal point with some other films at this year’s festival: namely, the ways men marginalize women. Early on, Mary’s father dismisses her interests in horror as not worth pursuing. When Mary tells Shelley she’s not comfortable with his wanting to take additional lovers — including her sister — he lashes out defensively, utterly unable to empathize. It comes back around when Mary writes Frankenstein, and can only get it published anonymously with Shelley writing the foreword, leading everyone to believe he is the sole author.

But Mary is resolute through all of the ups and downs, holding her ground and refusing to be cast aside. And eventually, the men in her life realize she is a force to be reckoned with, worthy of their respect. She and Shelley eventually marry, and her estranged father ultimately arranges for a new edition of Frankenstein to be published — one that properly credits her as the author.

Is it good?

Haifaa Al-Mansour’s film is beautifully crafted, and given the filmmaker’s own personal accomplishments — in 2012, she became the first female director in Saudi Arabia to make a feature-length film — it’s easy to see the personal parallels in Mary’s story of creative triumph. But more than that, Al-Mansour is able to embrace and explore the nuances of Mary’s personal feelings and political leanings. She is strong and has great faith in her ideals, but she’s also not afraid to recognize when they don’t match what she wants personally, a degree of self-awareness that many of the film’s characters lack.

Fanning delivers an empathetic, though somewhat distant, performance as Mary, and there’s definitely fun to be had in watching some of the inspirations for Frankenstein come together. It’s a storytelling technique that could turn into biopic cliche, but Al-Mansour wisely keeps the moments to a minimum and frames them more as subtle, true-to-life inspirations — a stage performer briefly touting the effects of galvanism, for example — rather than moments of ah-ha! realization.

Mary Shelley never soars the way the film so clearly wants to, though. It’s hard to invest in the movie’s core relationship when it becomes clear just what an uncompromising and unsympathetic figure Percy Shelley is. (Booth plays him as if he only has two modes: dreamy charmer or sullen teenager.) Without that romance effectively driving the story forward, the film simply drifts at times, with no sense of urgency or immediacy.

Toward the end of the movie, the poet realizes that the isolated, lonely monster of Frankenstein was his wife’s way of expressing how alone she felt through much of their relationship, and that’s the way the film makes the audience feel a bit as well. It’s engaging, but it ultimately keeps viewers at arm’s length.

What should it be rated?

Despite the subject matter, this is a fairly standard historical drama. PG-13 would be the best fit.

How can I actually watch it?

There’s no US release date in place yet for Mary Shelley, but I’m betting it will land in theaters in 2018, before coming to the streaming service of your choice.