Haifaa al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley suggests that the eponymous writer’s classic novel Frankenstein is the result of the influence of men on her life. But it’s not any kind of love, from romance to heartbreak, that inspires Mary; it is men’s inescapable cruelty that drives her to write out of anger. Biopics of women artists often go one of two ways: sexist revisionism (in which a woman artist’s talent and agency are replaced by romance with a man) or feminist critique. Al-Mansour’s film, at times, toes the line between these two. Occasionally slipping from her thesis – that it is sexism rather than love that inspires Mary Shelley – al-Mansour makes a concerted effort to give her her due while placing critique upon the men around her who encounter little of the judgement and few of the obstacles that she does.
Sixteen-year-old Mary (Elle Fanning) is a young idealist who feels out of place in and stifled by society, with its strict rules, standards of social politeness and institutions such as marriage. When she meets rebellious poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), they are immediately drawn to each other, and romance blossoms. Mary finds out, however, that Percy is already married. Convinced that she can live out of wedlock, she runs away with Percy and her sister Claire (Bel Powley).
Mary quickly finds that Percy is not all he seems. He proclaims – against Mary’s resistance – that non-monogamy is liberation, and when Mary is assaulted by his friend, his only response is that she should be open to having other lovers and to his sleeping with other women. He neglects her in favour of his own indulgences, driving them into debt. In their diminishing living situation, their already sickly infant daughter dies – prompting Percy, of course, to suggest that Mary should get over her grief speedily. Though Percy steers through most of the difficulties and transgressions of the Shelleys’ home life, Mary, being a woman, is met with harsher critique and scandal than he is, losing contact with her family and facing public scorn which never fully extends to her partner, while being constantly reminded by those around her of the scandal she has perpetuated. We watch as the stress eats away at her, while Percy enjoys his freedom. Neglected and without the liberties Percy enjoys, she sinks into a deep depression. Under the pretext of a consciously emancipated existence, she has become trapped in Percy’s home. Disowned by her father, she has nowhere else to go and, as a woman, she has little way of supporting herself.
Mary Shelley is intent on exposing Percy’s male hypocrisy. Feeling oppressed by society’s strictures, he lives on the margins. But he does not realise that he, and the other male artists he associated with, such as Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), are still dominating those communities that they create, forming microcosms of the patriarchal institutions they congratulate themselves for escaping. These men present their beliefs as radical political thought, but reveal themselves to be seeking pleasure and control over women first and foremost. Mary, in her own isolation and powerlessness, is further convinced of the sad state of women even in bohemian circles. Claire, having begun an affair with Byron, is mocked and discarded as soon as he gets bored, in spite of her pregnancy. Meanwhile, Percy’s first wife, abandoned by him when he likewise grew bored of her, takes her own life. While Percy and Byron indulge in debauchery, smoking opium, drinking to excess, and taking up with other women whom they equally do not respect, Mary is stuck by herself, contemplating her own situation as well as that of the women around her.
It’s in Mary’s despondency and disillusion that Frankenstein crystallises. Al-Mansour suggests that there are various elements to Mary’s inspiration: her youthful enjoyment of ghost stories; her fascination with galvanism (a process by which dead bodies may be brought to life with electricity). But it is, ultimately, the emotional violence and inescapable oppression caused by men against which Mary rebels. In montage, al-Mansour intercuts between Mary as she finally writes her novel and past scenes of abuse at the hands of men. In the most overtly ‘artful’ moment of the film – which otherwise has a relatively languid style, focused on atmospheric beauty, subdued performances, and a slow yet steady narrative progression – al-Mansour jolts the audience out of passive viewing and into her fast-paced fusing of ideas to drive home her point. When, after the sequence, the film returns to its more conventional style, we watch characters comment on Frankenstein itself. No one mistakes the abuse of the lonely monster as anything other than a version of what Mary, and the women in her life, have had to suffer through.
So it is both surprising and disappointing that al-Mansour chooses to end her film with the reunion of Percy and Mary. After Mary’s struggle to be published as a woman, Frankenstein is printed anonymously in 1818; the public assumes that Percy is the novel’s true author. Finally, Mary walks in on a reading where Percy proclaims her authorship; they kiss and title cards state they were together for the rest of his short life. Capping off a film that so sharply attacks the mistreatment of women at the hands of men with a scene in which Percy’s mere statement of a fact is represented as a heroic act of love rings false. With al-Mansour having so carefully undercut the historical romance, this feels like another one of her fake-outs. In earlier scenes we watch as Percy performs a kindness (such as writing Mary a love letter), only to reveal his faults (reading the love letter is interrupted when Percy’s first wife arrives, begging him to come home to her). After we have come to understand Percy’s pattern of narcissistic self-indulgence, it feels aggrieving to see him swoop in again as her loving soulmate. How can we trust this reunion? The last moments of the film greatly diminish Mary Shelley’s subversive critique. But they do remind us of how, in cases where women partner with men who treat them badly, that struggle has been all too often lazily re-written as unproblematised passion.