There are two types of biopics: films that cover someone’s entire life, and films that cover a significant period in someone’s life. If you ask me, those that focus on specific creative periods are the way to go — Danny Boyle’s excellent Steve Jobs biopic is a prime example. These condensed stories pack in more texture, personality, and soul, but Director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley takes the latter approach and focuses on the period in Shelley’s life that inspired her Gothic horror masterpiece, Frankenstein.
The film doesn’t take long to establish Shelley’s (Elle Fanning) emo cred. We meet her alone in a graveyard writing stories, and though only 16, she possesses a willful personality and fierce creative drive. Her intellectual parents instilled their unconventional beliefs about taboo subjects like atheism and sexual liberation, and it’s no surprise that Mary often sneaks away from her family’s book store to read ghoulish tales by candlelight.
Mary meets the charming Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), a man who is somehow strikingly handsome while looking like an actual creature of the night. The couple falls in love and marry, but before long their passion fades and Percy pursues other women. Mary takes her pain, frustration, and loneliness and uses them as themes in her seminal novel, Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley‘s success hangs on its central performance, and Fanning isn’t up to the task. She usually only excels when directors utilize her in very specific ways, and lacks the acting chops to enhance this script’s leaden moments. Mary Shelley also often breaks storytelling’s golden rule: show don’t tell. There are too many instances of people standing in rooms explaining their actions or declaring how they feel.
Mary Shelley has the look of a prestige drama, but lacks the tight script and strong performances necessary to elevate it to award season status.