There might ultimately be a message of female empowerment in this biopic about Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, but it still feels like rote prestige drama for too much of the running time. The focus is on just two years in the life of Mary (Elle Fanning), as she’s sent away to Scotland in 1814 at the age of 16, meets the married poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth) and proceeds on an unconventional, sometimes tragic path towards the publication of Frankenstein in 1816. Director Haifaa Al-Mansour (Wadjda) crafts a strong foundation for Mary’s independence and rebellious streak—built on the feminist writings of her mother, who died shortly after Mary was born—and Fanning’s performance makes it clear that this young woman is nobody’s victim. Yet while Al-Mansour finds some visual spark in the montage focusing on the writing of Frankenstein, full of exploding ink droplets, too much of the rest of the narrative succumbs to the biopic trap of ticking off Wikipedia entry bullet points. When a feverishly lurid version of this origin story like Ken Russell’s Gothic exists, you can feel the need for a jolt of electricity.
Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Producer: Amy Baer, Alan Moloney, Ruth Coady, Mark Amin, Tyler Boehm, Joannie Burstein and Johanna Hogan
Cast: Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Stephen Dillane, Maisie Williams, Joanne Froggatt and Ben Hardy