After the success of Haifaa al-Mansour’s groundbreaking Wadjida, the first feature film by a female Saudi director and shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, expectations were high for her latest Mary Shelley. Having the first female Saudi director working on a movie about such a radical and controversial woman and with such a strong cast sounds like a recipe for success. However, unlike for Shelley’s monster, it feels like a bigger effort should have been made to galvanise this film.
Instead of being a purely biographical film about the novelist’s life, Mary Shelley focuses on the romance between Mary (Elle Fanning) and the poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), who eventually became her husband. Allegedly, the anguish endured in this relationship led to the publication of the influential novel Frankenstein. Unfortunately – although it might be a relief for some – the despair experienced by Mary never really gets to the audience. Elle Fanning’s visceral rendition, although worth of praise, somehow does not quite do the job.
With an odd spotlight given to the characters around Mary, the protagonist herself often seems left out. The film barely lets the audience know what is going on in her mind, and although this gives the character a very mysterious and seductive look that suits her, it’s maybe the element to blame for a lack of depth in the film. In addition, some of the most scandalous – and interesting – facts about Mary’s life and her relationship with Percy, were for some reason omitted. She always carried her lover’s calcified heart with her after he died, it doesn’t get more gothic and cinematic than this!
Nonetheless, elements like the costumes, the actors’ performances and the cinematography emanate an irresistible gothic vibe. And the audience is in for a treat with Maisie William’s Scottish accent and Tom Sturridge’s rendition of Lord Byron! Mary Shelley may not have surpassed Wadjida, but Haifaa al-Mansour is still one to look out for.
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