**SPOILER ALERT** This article contains details about the plot of the film.
Director Haifaa Al-Mansour and writer Emma Jensen have given Hollywood the inspiring biopic it so desperately needs.
Mary Shelley tells the story of the now famous teenaged author of Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. Born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Mary was the daughter of the infamous feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft and political philosopher William Godwin, a radical proponent of equality, utilitarianism, and anarchism. Mary’s mother died when she was an infant, and William Godwin (played in the film by Stephen Dillane), raised his daughter to be an independent thinker, encouraging her to write and keeping her in touch with her mother’s legacy.
At the age of 16, Mary (played to perfection by Elle Fanning), meets and quickly falls in love with Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), a poet who, by the age of 21, is enjoying a successful and promising career. A scandal ensues when, after discovering Percy has a wife and a young child (though is estranged from both of them), Mary chooses to run away with him. The scandal, as well as his personal dislike for Percy, proves to be too much for her father to handle; despite his own philosophies of free love and anarchism, he tells Mary she is no longer welcome in his home. Mary’s doting step-sister, Claire (another stunning performance from Bel Powley), isn’t about to lose her sister and best friend, and insists on running away with her.
The next few years with Percy and Claire are filled with love, passion, and inspiration, but also disappointment, betrayal, and grief. Percy’s many highs and lows as a writer do not create much stability for the family, nor do his fluctuating moods or his wandering eye. When Mary gives birth to a baby girl, she and Percy are happier than ever. But the happiest days of Mary’s life are quickly followed by a severe depression after the baby dies.
Mary’s complicated life with Percy and Claire culminates with a vacation to Geneva, where the trio are invited to stay in Geneva with Percy’s idol, the famous writer – and also, Claire’s lover – Lord Byron, who challenges each of his guests to write a ghost story as a way to pass the time.
The challenge inspired Mary to write what has widely been argued to be the first-ever science fiction novel: Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus.
Science Fiction is a genre born from passionate curiosity and unbridled imagination and creativity. It pushes the limits of reality while creating a narrative so familiar to an audience, it makes us feel that anything is possible. What makes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein such an achievement is the fact her creation of this reality is not just an intellectual exploration into the power of electricity and reanimation; it is the emotional connection the audience has with both the monster and scientist, the ambiguity in who the true villain of the story is, the ability to feel repulsed by the creation and simultaneously sympathetic and heartbroken for it.
Upon reading her book, Percy suggests changing the story to be one of hope instead of fear; that man creating an angel instead of a monster will imagine the possibility of good coming from such technology. However, Mary is well aware of the choice she has made in her story. Man may be able to create something wonderful and pure, but instead will inevitably create a monster – not through malice or any kind of negative intention, but because of his own arrogance. He will create something he is unable to control and send it into the world with no idea of the consequences. Tragedy is the inescapable price to pay for such vanity.
The audience, too, is not going to be rewarded with a happy or a hopeful ending. It’s a warning to mankind and a challenge to our expectations, which, ultimately, is the brilliance of the story. As Mary’s father tells her in the film, “ghost stories may sell, but it is books that challenge the common doctrine that will surely endure.”
Elle Fanning gives a flawless performance as Mary. Her keen intellect and sophistication are never, not for a minute, separated from her vulnerability and her desire to love. Mary is as devoted to those around her as she is brilliant and independent. She’s never bound by society’s judgment, but desperately craves the affection of her lover and her younger sister, despite the numerous ways in which they both disappoint her. She’s not a victim, nor is she the token strong woman we so often see in modern media, who overcomes every obstacle with a sarcastic – but always sexy – smirk.
Director Haifaa Al-Mansour could not have been a better choice to bring Mary’s story to the screen. The internationally acclaimed filmmaker is the first woman to direct a feature film in her home country of Saudi Arabia, and is one of three women on the kingdom’s General Authority for Culture, a government program designed to support arts and entertainment. Al-Mansour and Mary Shelley have much in common; both challenge the world to evolve, and do so with a strong voice and an undeniable talent.
The words of Mary’s father linger long after the film is done: “Rid yourself of the thoughts and words of other people. Find your own voice.”