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'Mary Shelley' – quite contrary to the character this film wants us to know

For a celebration of a pioneering literary genius, 'Mary Shelley' is surprisingly clunky and corseted

A new film out this week is called Mary Shelley. I guess most of us would know she’s the woman who wrote Frankenstein, but the interesting thing about this handsome biopic of the author is how close she came to being forgotten. When the novel was first published, it was anonymously attributed, and much of literary London assumed that Percy Shelley, who did pen the introduction, was the true creator.

The film tells the story of Mary’s relationship with Shelley: a tumultuous, mostly unhappy pairing of a guileless young woman – Mary was 16 at the time – with a charismatic narcissist that led to the writing of the novel that made her name. And it’s the tenacious attempt by Mary to assert her true ownership of the book that provides the film with its best moments: at a time when the film industry is at last facing up to questions of gender diversity, this heartfelt celebration of female creativity has welcome and bracing relevance.

Playing Mary, the American actress Elle Fanning confronts the sexism of London publishers and fellow authors with a rousingly combative determination. It’s a good performance, so do director Haifaa al-Mansour and screenwriter Emma Jensen really need to telegraph quite so obviously Mary’s fighting spirit? “I have inherited,” says Fanning early on with an earnest intensity that screams Oscars clip reel, “nothing but a fire in my soul.”

Byron is played by Tom Sturridge: heavy in sybaritic excess and glam-rock eyeliner, it’s a ridiculous performance but at least he sparks the film to life

Yep, for a film that aspires to honour the literary sophistication of a pioneering writer, Mary Shelley is pretty clunky. This is costume drama at its most fussy and corseted. Set in the early 1810s, the film begins with Mary living with her widowed father William Godwin (Stephen Dillane) in a state of bohemian penury. It’s a loving but unstable environment: there are creditors at the door and Mary is the constant target of the thin-lipped disapproval of her stepmother (Joanne Froggatt).

But trouble really arrives, at a soiree at a family friend’s house in Scotland, in the form of the English actor Douglas Booth. Or I should say the strikingly handsome character he’s playing: his close-up is a Halloween mask of smouldering sensitivity and brooding vigour. Who’s that, Mary asks her friend. “Oh, that’s Shelley. He’s beautiful, isn’t he? He’s a radical poet who wants to transform society.”

The film creaks with this kind of exposition throughout, and much of what follows are stodgy vignettes in which historical personages drift in and out, like crib notes in advance of an English literature exam.

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The ripest example of this approach comes when Mary, whose relationship with the married poet has estranged her from her father, goes with Shelley and her stepsister Claire to Geneva to spend the summer with Lord Byron, the celebrated episode that triggered the writing of Frankenstein. Byron is played by Tom Sturridge: heavy in sybaritic excess and glam-rock eyeliner, it’s a ridiculous performance but at least he sparks the film to life. The rest of the movie remains stubbornly ungalvanised.

It’s real shame because al-Mansour made Wadjda, a wonderful film about a 10-year-old girl in Riyadh that was the first Saudi fiction feature to be ­directed by a woman.

There are things to admire here: notably Fanning’s performance, and the owlish, world-weary irony that Dillane brings to the role of her father. But I’m left thinking about Mary Shelley’s reaction to one of those fusty publishers who doubts that a woman could have written Frankenstein: furious, she talks about the importance of “judging the work instead of me”. Mary Shelley the person was a formidable, inspiring genius. Mary Shelley the film disappoints.

Mary Shelley is in cinemas from July 6

Image: Still from Mary Shelley

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