Lost in the Movies: Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley

We meet her, of course, reading a book while hunched up against a tombstone. This is an instantly evocative image, juxtaposing the freshness of youth with the finality of death to convey a mood (the pleasingly Gothic milieu out of which the famed novel arose), a theme (the haunting presence of death in the young woman's life), and a particular context (the grave belongs to Mary Wollstonecroft, a feminist trailblazer who died giving birth to our heroine). Mary Godwin (Elle Fanning) is not yet Mary Shelley - in fact, incongruous if obvious title aside, she won't be until the film has nearly ended - but we can already see the author of Frankenstein foreshadowed in this imaginative, rebellious young woman, skipping chores to read ghost stories. She races home where she struggles alongside her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley) under the caring but aloof tutelage of her father William Godwin (Stephen Dillane) and her much more malevolently down-to-earth stepmother Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggatt, just twelve years older than her onscreen daughter Powley). This dreary domestic portrait suggests a quite typical workaday milieu of impoverished English life early in the nineteenth century, but in many ways Mary's life is extremely atypical - her weary father and late mother not only brushed shoulders with titans of the age, but were themselves incendiary radicals.

There's a sense in which this recent past seems both fresh and faded; Mary's mother feels like a ghostly presence that's only just left the room, whose traces can still be sensed in disturbances of the atmosphere - and her still-living father smolders like a candle only just extinguished. But if the curtain has only just fallen on one epoch, it's already opening on another - and Mary herself will play a starring role. She meets, falls in love with, and runs away with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), disowned even by her liberal-minded father as society both scorns and celebrates the young rebels. She births - and loses - a child, racing from residence to residence as her husband publishes his work and she struggles to find her own voice. Eventually - along with scientific breakthroughs of the time, Mary's grief surrounding her dead baby, and the confusion of her status in this tumultuous world - it will be Claire's fling with (and eventual, agonizing rejection by) Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) that leads Mary to discover this voice at a certain Swiss chateau on a very famous dark and stormy night.

There are few stories-behind-stories that fascinate me more than Frankenstein's, which seems appropriate for a narrative itself about the far-flung impact of creation. It's rare to find such an iconic work (iconic in title, character, and concept) which can be traced both through a sprawling, dizzying array of cultural offspring and back to one individual source. And that one individual source was herself such a unique figure: a female author at a time when this feat was quite rare, a teenage rebel consorting with the rock stars of her tumultuous era, a precocious thinker well-acquainted at nineteen not only with heady theories but also deeply personal tragedy and trauma. Discussions of Romantic literature, Hollywood cinema, the horror and sci-fi genres (both literary and cinematic), and even whole areas of scientific ethics are virtually impossible without touching on the work of Mary Shelley, while the history of feminism, anarchism, and atheism are incomplete without mentioning her family. Yet this is one of the few major biopics to tackle her life (the only other film I've seen cited is Gothic, which focuses exclusively on the Shelleys' famed Swiss excursion with Lord Byron where Frankenstein was conceived). Is such a fascinating tale perfectly suited for this treatment, or is it too overwhelming to be contained within those confines?

Timed for the two hundredth anniversary of Frankenstein's publication, Mary Shelley was rolled out in high profile, with festival premieres and interviews with major outlets. Nonetheless, this film also received decidedly mixed reviews, ranging mostly from respectful admiration to underwhelmed derision. Although I'll address this specific film's qualities - its strengths and shortcomings - in a moment, it's worth noting that Mary Shelley's dilemma is not unique. Sumptuous historical dramas generally, and biographical films particularly, draw upon the medium's inherent appeal while struggling to ascend to the art form's highest capabilities. Since their inception, the movies have expressed a longing to bring real events or people of the past "to life," re-creating what can never be truly re-captured so that viewers can experience the illusion of resurrection. Yet this desire elides the medium's full expressive potential, its creative rather than re-creative tendencies: the possibility of capturing a moment directly as it exists in the present, preserving that phenomenon for posterity. This is true of fantasies as well as documentaries, due less to what elaborate special effects convey than to the fact that they themselves are acts of immediate creation, something we can sense even as we partially succumb to the naturalistic illusion (the lack of discernable texture in CGI is part of the reason the digital era often lacks the "magic" of its antecedents). It can be said, then, that movies reach their highest state not because of their desire to transcend the time and place of their production, but in spite of this desire.

Any biopic is itself a Frankenstein form, attempting to reproduce an act of God - in this case, a life unfolding in a particular time and place not entirely of its choosing - through an act of man. The end product is almost inherently incapable of measuring up to the impulse that produced it. And yet despite disappointment there is something moving and exciting in that attempt, both for the grandeur of the ambition and for the personal touches that slip through. I said an "act of man" in the broadest sense possible but, of course, Mary Shelley is an act of women and that specificity matters. Not only does Shelley's own story very expressly hinge on her gender and the social expectations imposed upon it, but the film itself was the creation of women who related to Shelley's own struggles across two centuries and four continents. The Australian screenwriter Emma Jenson was inspired by Shelley's struggles to write and the idiosyncratic age at which she began, connecting through a combination of direct congruity (Jenson speaks of her own extended writer's block, and onscreen Shelley is frequently ashamed and embarrassed by her own lack of published work despite her fervent activity) and contradictory echo (unlike Shelley, Jenson's own breakthrough didn't come until she was thirty-five; writing this review on the day of my thirty-fifth birthday, I find this rather encouraging myself).

Haifaa al-Monsour, meanwhile, is a Saudi filmmaker who directed not only the first feature shot by a woman entirely inside Saudi Arabia, but the first Saudi feature shot entirely inside Saudi Arabia period. Wajdja, about a girl who enters a Koran recitation competition in order to win a bicycle, was a much simpler and closer-to-home tale than Mary Shelley, but of course al-Monsour related to Shelley's struggle against social expectations, innovation in her chosen field, and globe-trotting experience. She could also relate to the author's unique parentage (al-Monsour's father was a poet and her mother an unconventional woman who wore lighter veils and presented more assertively than was conventional at the time), and marriage to a prominent husband from a different background (in her case, a U.S. diplomat rather than a poet descended from landowners). Al-Monsour ably navigates her first big-budget international production, with a keen eye for Mary's relationship to Claire, perhaps the most compelling and complicated relationship in the film, although the director's voice occasionally recedes as the biopic hits necessary beat after necessary beat, as biopics are wont to do.

The best parts of Mary Shelley, the afteraffects that linger in memory, are the spaces it carves out inside the sprawl. If its visions of decadence and poetic fervor are relatively limp, its depiction of Mary's narrow, lived-in, idiosyncratic upbringing glows with a refreshing unfamiliarity. William Godwin was an unconventional father, especially in the early nineteenth century, and there's something touching about the way he navigates deeply-held views about independence alongside a parent's protective instincts, dissociating from his daughter not out of the lofty rationality of the former position (as might be expected) but out of the wounded emotions of the latter. This environment is replete with rich contradictions. The Godwins' existence is marginal and meager yet saturated with a legacy of innovation and fame (or infamy), caught in the tension between a desired life of the mind and the necessary work of the hands (much of Mary's time in the house is spent washing clothes). The milieu feels shockingly modern compared to our expectations of pre-Victorian England, yet remains distinctly anchored in the character of this era.

The revolutionary materialism and intellectualism of Mary's parents' generation bleeds subtly into the mystic, melancholy disillusionment of her own - each epoch Romantic in its own distinct, yet overlapping, fashion. Indeed, while the tension between reason and romance has been variously characterized as sterile vs. sensual by Romantic sympathizers, or radical vs. reactionary by Enlightenment partisans, the chronology of these moments seldom provides as neat a delineation as orderly historians might wish. I've seen the film criticized for giving short shrift to Mary's intellectual pursuits, for its willingness to depict her act of creation primarily through the lens of a very personal intuitive/emotional catharsis rather than a subtle, quick-witted mind addressing grand questions. I think that's a fair criticism, yet the film's strongest moments do mine the tensions within Mary's own life and the larger Romantic era. In one such moment, she faces Henry Fuseli's vivid 1781 painting The Nightmare (itself a very early vision of the Romantic imagination, at a time when a relatively rationalistic discourse dominated). She recalls that her mother had a passionate affair with the artist which almost led to her suicide, and wonders how a woman so lucid in her attachment to feminist independence could become so dependent on the love of a man. The question is gendered and individualized, but also applies to the sweep of four decades on the European continent.

Later, in a contrast I wish the film had employed more often (for the most part, tensions in Percy's and Mary's visions of the world are filtered through familiar marital-infidelity tropes), Mary's husband praises her work but gently suggests that Dr. Frankenstein ultimately create an angel rather than a monster, an ideal to inspire mankind rather than a mirror to reveal its darkest self. This is an amusingly unaware request (the brilliant poet proving a clueless critic), but also a telling contrast, illustrating a schism inherent in bohemianism: is the point of rebellion to envision a glorious if abstracted alternative to the existing order, or to rip away comforting social illusions and confront the ugly but honest reality? Even if Mary Shelley never transcends its genre, and often remains bound by that genre's limitations, it nevertheless allows opens a valuable window into the subject and contains compelling insights. Understandably wary of being a film of ideas rather than of feelings, the film is strongest when it allows for both, guided at least partly by the spirit of a subject who had the unique ability to transmute one into the other.

No comments:

Search This Blog