Time is relative right now. If you’re seeing Tenet this weekend (preferably at an open-air drive-in), well, I guess that’s your summer movie season. Thus, the Midwest Film Journal is celebrating — at least in the astronomical sense — Endless Summer. In this intermittent series, which will run through the autumnal equinox on Sept. 22, we’ll look back at summer films from seasons past. Big, small, light, heavy, wild successes and weird misfires. Our multiplex is full and open for Endless Summer.
Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour and based on an original screenplay by Australian screenwriter Emma Jensen, Mary Shelley is a biographical period-piece drama that focuses on the early years of novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who lived from 1797 to 1851. (The original title was A Storm in the Stars.) I watched Mary Shelley on Hulu, during the endless summer of 2020 in the midst of a global pandemic — I found it a compelling yet rather lifeless film, fitting my strange mood. After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in fall 2017, Mary Shelley was released in the United States in May 2018 and the United Kingdom almost two months later. I found that a little odd because this is so completely a UK story, being set primarily in London and Scotland, with Great Romantic Writer characters straight out of your old English Literature classes and centering around perhaps the greatest novel and novelist of the period (in my humble opinion).
The film’s weaknesses can be found in the script, which makes all its pertinent points with a heavy hand, moves along slowly, and leaves out or convolutes some significant aspects of Mary’s life (as well as in its editing; I can’t quite put my finger on what’s wrong with it, but there’s something amiss). I don’t quite understand choices made regarding the picking and choosing related to the historical record of the Shelleys’ lives.
The script details the birth and death of Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s first child, a premature baby born in 1815, who died within days. This child is called Clara in the film, but I don’t think that was the baby’s name in real life. However, the film does not mention that Percy and Mary, pregnant again, married on December 30, 1816 (20 days after Percy’s previous wife, Harriet, committed suicide, which is related in the film). The film also leaves out that they had four other pregnancies. In January 1816, Mary gave birth to their second child, William, and birthed Clara in September 1817 — both arriving before Mary published Frankenstein. (Because their births aren’t mentioned, neither are their respective deaths, at age 3 and age 1.)
Mary Shelley also does not reference that, in March 1818, the Chancery Court found that Percy was morally unfit to assume custody of his children, who were placed with a clergyman’s family. The film ends with Mary and their fourth child, son Percy Florence (born in November 1819), walking together in London when the boy is about 6 years old, but it does not mention that Mary miscarried a fifth child in June 1822. In fairness to the screenwriter, who chose to cover in detail only five years of Mary’s life, post-1818 material is excluded. However, the postscript contains textual notes on the rest of Mary’s life (but not the toddlers’ deaths or the miscarriage). There is an end note on Percy’s death in 1822; he drowned while sailing with friends Edward Ellerker Williams and Captain Daniel Roberts. The boat sank during a storm, and all three men perished.
Rather than chronological fidelity, Mary Shelley‘s strengths are the cinematography, the music, and the historically accurate depictions of all the douchey men in Mary’s life. (Indeed, regardless of the time period, one recognizes the douchey-ness of paternalistic, condescending, patriarchal men in general in the film’s male characters.) The film’s strength is its focus on Mary’s real-life feelings and how they affected her writing of Frankenstein, feelings that have been historically ignored by other films and people analyzing the book and Mary’s authorship. We can thank the female screenwriter and the female director for finally making a film that tells the world about Mary’s emotional reality and its impact on her famous novel.
The plot begins before she met and started her romantic relationship with the famous poet Percy. (In real life, she was 16 and he was 21 and married with a pregnant wife who later gave birth to a son. In the film, that child is a daughter already at least 8 years old.) The plot continues through to the publication of Mary’s famous novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The film ends in approximately 1825, when we see Mary with her young son Percy Florence walking past her father’s bookshop in London.
Along with the cinematography and accompanying music, the story accurately and moodily depicts Mary’s sense of loneliness and abandonment that echoed from her childhood into her relationship with Percy and the death of their premature baby. Before marrying Percy, she is called Mary Godwin in the film; her parents were pioneering feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after giving birth to Mary, and publisher / political philosopher William Godwin. As a teenager, she lived rather unhappily with her beloved father, her not-beloved stepmother, Mary Jane Godwin (a role that should’ve been given more screen time because hello, Joanne Froggatt!), her stepsister and close confidante, Claire Clairmont, and Claire’s younger brother. We quickly understand that Mary is intelligent, well-read, interested in science, frustrated, lonely, and a victim of her time (as were all women in that time period) and that she is not like other women, even other “radical” women of her time.
Because of her stepmother’s dislike of Mary, William Godwin sends her off to Scotland to stay with like-minded friends of his, the Baxters. It’s there in the film that Mary meets and falls in love with Percy. In real life, Mary probably met him in London — in between her two visits to the Baxters in 1812 and 1813. By March 1814, Percy was a fixture at the Godwin house, having become a student and financial patron (of sorts) of Mary’s father. Percy’s radicalism, particularly his economic views, which he got from Godwin’s Political Justice (1793), had already alienated him from his wealthy family. By June 1814, Mary and Percy were lovers who (now famously) always met to make love at the grave of Mary’s mother. Mary was distressed by her father’s displeasure over her relationship with Percy, because Godwin had raised Mary with the view that marriage was a repressive monopoly, which he had argued in Political Justice. (Apparently he retracted that viewpoint sometime after his marriage to Mary Jane.)
The couple elopes, taking Claire with them and living in near-poverty until Percy borrows against his wealthy father’s estate to live in lavish style in the fashionable London West End neighborhood of Bloomsbury. Douchebag Percy is already flirting with Claire, and Mary, now pregnant with their first child, is propositioned by one of Percy’s friends. When she complains to Percy about the unwanted advances, he tells her that he wants her to take other partners and assumes the same freedom for himself. He calls her a hypocrite, but she stands up to him, expressing her disappointment in him as a man. (Side note: Percy does not ever change his philandering ways although the film suggests Mary was his true love.)
The strange trio — Mary, Claire, and Percy — live together and do things like attending a public display of galvanism, in which a dead frog is made to twitch by the application of electricity. It is there that they meet the famous poet Lord Byron, with whom Claire is immediately smitten. However, the odd trio’s extravagant lifestyle is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Percy’s creditors. In the film, Mary has already given birth to a baby they call Clara (in the film): Mary, Claire, and Shelley flee the creditors, on a cold and rainy night, back to the cheap lodgings they had before moving to Bloomsbury. There, the poor baby dies ~ the film suggests that the baby dies because of the cold and squalid living conditions. Mary is inconsolable; Percy Shelley seems relatively unaffected, although the film gives him a few “I miss her, too” lines.
Claire tells Mary and Percy that she is pregnant by Byron, whom she says has invited them all to stay with him in his villa near Lake Geneva, Switzerland. However, upon their arrival, Byron makes it clear that the “invitation” is Claire’s wishful thinking, but he magnanimously asks them to stay anyway. Dr. John Polidori is also a guest there. During this visit, poor weather keeps them indoors for days on end, and one evening Byron challenges the group to each write a ghost story as a competition. Polidori writes The Vampyre, which is later “stolen” and published under Byron’s name; in real life, Polidori eventually committed suicide because he could not ever get the book recognized as his work. Mary’s imagination stirs her from her depression over the loss of her child while the storms and her memories cause her to dream — of her mother, of galvanism, of her early days with Percy. These dreams will become her “ghost story,” Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus — which she wrote at age 18 and published at age 20.
Other things are happening, and it is here that the film’s editing suffers the most. Percy learns his first wife has drowned herself. Byron treats Claire with increasing contempt and tells her their affair was just a dalliance to him — one that he has no interest in continuing beyond financial provisions for her baby. (In real life, he took custody of their daughter, Allegra, who died at age 10.) Claire is crushed, but Mary tells her: “You don’t need him, you don’t need any of them.” It is clear to us that Mary thinks the douchey men in their lives are useless except as potential financial security — which she knows is something women don’t usually have on their own. The three amigos return to their poor lodgings in England, and Mary starts to write her novel Frankenstein. In real life, Mary wrote the first draft in Geneva. She wrote the first four chapters in the weeks following the suicide of her half-sister, Fanny, her mother’s illegitimate daughter by American diplomat Gilbert Imlay. Fanny’s suicide was only one of the many personal tragedies that influenced Frankenstein, including the aforementioned death of her first child, and the fact that when she was writing Frankenstein in 1816, she was likely nursing her second child William (dead by the time the novel was published).
The film depicts that the stresses of Mary’s lifetime of tragic experiences, her depression after the death of her baby, and Percy’s woeful finances and infidelities all drive Mary and Percy further apart while she is consumed with her writing. However, when she finishes her book, Percy recognizes it is a masterpiece. The film gives us a fictional scene wherein he tries to get Mary to rewrite the Creature as beautiful so that readers will see him as “the hope of mankind.” It is one of the best scenes in the film because Mary’s reaction forces Percy to finally “see” her, to understand her as the woman she is, and to see her novel as perfect just the way she wrote it.
In keeping with historical reality and Mary’s actual life, no publisher will accept the book under her name because it is considered unsuitable subject matter for a female author. Its first edition was published anonymously in London on New Year’s Day in 1818, with the prerequisite that Percy write the foreword. The book is a success, but Percy himself is initially given the credit for writing it until he publicly discloses the name of the true author, after which the couple reconnects. In the film, Mary’s father arranges for a second publication of her novel under her own name, ensuring that she derives an income from it. In real life, Mary’s name first appeared in the second edition published in Paris in 1821, when she was 21 years old.
In the last scene of the film, Mary, dressed in black, is seen walking with a young son. In the afterword end notes, we learn that Mary and Percy had married and stayed together until Percy’s death at the age of 29, with Mary Mary never marrying again.
I couldn’t help but wonder about the film’s release: Who paid to see this in theaters? Just a few people, as it made only $108,800 in the U.S. and a total international take of $2,096,600. I haven’t been able to pinpoint how much this film cost to make, but it was filmed in some amazing locations all over Europe, and the sets and costumes alone must have cost a fortune. Plus, the salaries of the cast had to be relatively significant. Most are worth it.
Elle Fanning plays Mary a little listlessly and a little stiffly, but again, Mary’s real life informs those moods, and considering Mary’s age in this film (16 to 21), Fanning does fine. Bel Powley is perfectly annoying as Claire, Mary’s flirty tag-along stepsister. Douglas Booth plays Percy. Booth is not engaging enough (on any level) for us to accept him as the object of Mary’s lifelong passion and true love. Then again, she was a naïve, unhappy, frustrated, and lonely young girl when she met Percy, so perhaps we don’t need to expect too much from Booth. I personally despise the real-life Percy and have since my long-ago days as an English Literature major at Indiana University. He was such an entitled ass; Booth does adequately bring Percy’s douchey persona to life. Tom Sturridge is a little over the top as Lord Byron; the dope-smoking, jumping-on-the-furniture scene when he screeches out the lines of his (now famous) “she walks in beauty like the night” poem is just so weird. I really didn’t think much of Sturridge as Byron at first, but then, again thanks to those old English Lit classes, I don’t think much of the real-life counterpart. I despise him for all of his despicable, narcissistic, demon-patriarchy characteristics, so Sturridge’s performance is ultimately rather satisfying. Ben Hardy is excellent as the doomed Polidori; we care just enough about him to feel positively toward him compared to the film’s other men. Sadly, both Maisie Williams, as Mary’s friend in Scotland, and Joanne Froggatt, as Mary’s disagreeable stepmother, are not given anything much to do in the film; what a waste of their talents!
Although this film is, in many ways, as lifeless and stitched together as the Creature before Dr. Frankenstein brings him to life, it is nonetheless a compelling film because it is fairly faithful to Mary Shelley’s complicated and interesting inner/emotional life, a life that heavily influenced Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. I say watch this film, then re-read the book: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley herself will shine forth anew to you on every page.