Haifaa Al-Mansour follows up to her critically acclaimed film Wadja is a gothic romance about the events which inspired Mary Shelley’s seminal novel Frankenstein. Charting the tumultuous relationship between Mary and her husband Percy, Mary Shelley weaves together a tale of love, betrayal and gender bias.
Infatuated with reading, especially ghost stories, Mary Wollstonecraft (Elle Fanning) longed to be a writer like her esteemed parents. Her passion for words is further fueled when she meets and falls in love with 21-year-old celebrated poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). Ignoring her father’s warning of the scandal that will erupt if she pursues a relationship with Percy, a womanizer who is still technically married to another woman, Mary decides to run away, with younger stepsister Clare (Bel Powley) in tow, to live a life free of social constrictions with the poet. Blinded by the idealistic veil of love, Percy’s wandering eyes and neglect of responsibilities slowly opens Mary’s eyes to hypocritical darkness within men.
Al-Mansour uses Mary’s life to show the disarming and unpredictable ways in which love can breakdown the most stringent of defenses. The passion that initially brought her and Percy together ultimately begins to isolate her from everything she once knew, including herself. Al-Mansour skillfully accentuates this by having the camera linger in lavish rooms void of human contact.
While the film offers several intriguing moments, the flaws become more apparent on second viewing. Adhering to the tropes of traditional period pieces, the tragedy and heartbreak never feels as grave as it should. This is mostly a result of Al-Mansour playing things a little too safe for her own good. By the time Mary is ready to find her own voice and write her iconic tale of loss and betrayal, it comes so late in the narrative that the film has no choice but to rush through the sexism of the publishing world in that era.
Occasionally overstating the obvious, the film works for the most part thanks to the strong performances by Elle Fanning and Tom Struddridge, who plays the famed writer Lord Byron with great gusto. They help to ensure that Al-Mansour’s message of self-actualization shines through despite some of Mary Shelley’s mundane moments.