Mary Shelley (2017)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Haifaa Al Mansour

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★★4.5 out of 5

Relevant Quotes

Look on my right hand and see —
there is no one who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
no one cares for me.
Psalm 142:4
As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
1 Cor. 14:33b-35

Although Mary Wollstonecraft is well known for her radical views on marriage and her writings on the rights of women, her daughter Mary Godwin Shelley has become even more famous due to her classic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus—and this at the tender age of 18! Thus I was delighted to learn that Haifaa Al Mansour, director of one of my favorite films for 2012 Wadjda, has a new film out, which she co-wrote with Emma Jensen. Its time and country—early 19th Century England are far different from Wadjda’s present-day Saudi Arabia, but its heroine also struggles mightily against a patriarchy that would restrict her freedom.

16-year-old Mary wants to become a writer, following in the footsteps of her deceased mother, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and her politically radical father William Godwin (Stephen Dillane). William, who himself has garnered a measure of fame as a philosopher and publisher, encourages his daughter, though as she concocts ghost stories, currently in vogue, he cautions her to find her own voice. Part of this search involved the girl’s strife with her step-mother who makes no secret of her disapproval the girl.

Sent to a friend’s home in Scotland where she finds more freedom, Mary soon meets the dashing young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth). Smitten with him, there begins their up and down passionate relationship that for a while brings about a break with her father when it is revealed that Shelley has a wife and daughter from whom he is estranged. Mary leaves home with her beloved half-sister Claire (Bel Powley) to join her lover disregarding his marital status.

The film openly shows her flaunting of the conventions of society, and also her own hurt and lack of consistency in the incident in which a friend attempts to seduce Mary. She complains to Shelley, and he shows no sign of outrage, but reminds her that she has advocated free love.

The threesome spend time in Switzerland with the free-spirited Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), Mary continually writing. Then comes the famous day at Byron’s Genevan villa when, inspired by their reading of a book of ghost stories, the group decided that each of them would write a horror story. Thus, began Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein­, based on her keen interest in science. (Earlier in a scene in England we see Mary attending a public demonstration of galvanism.) Eventually with the support of Percy, whom she marries when his first wife commits suicide, Mary’s book is published, but anonymously because of her sex. Because he wrote an introduction the public assumes that Percy Shelley is the author.

I don’t know about the historicity of the scene in which Percy declares that he is not the author and praises his wife as the true author while she listens unperceived by him, but it is a dramatically satisfying one. I do know that their future years together were not quite as harmonious as the end titles state, but they did indeed stay together until his unfortunate death by drowning a few years later.

As with Wadjda, filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour has given us a film worth sharing with our daughters to encourage them in their struggle during those times when they come up against the remnants of patriarchy. Her own nation has just now allowed women to be able to drive their own cars, but when the drive themselves to the new cinemas now allowed to oper ate, will they be able to see her films?

It is intriguing to learn from her film that Mary Shelley drew from her own sense of rejection and isolation, as being the outsider in a man’s world, for her novel. For me this was new, hitherto knowing the novel only through some of the films inspired by it, virtually all of which depicted the monster as being totally evil. She seems to know intuitively through her own experience the importance of society’s perception based on appearances and prejudices. This makes me think of a wonderful scene in Brad Bird’s excellent film The Iron Giant, in which the giant robot and the boy Hogarth are in the woods enjoying the sight of a deer when a shot rings out. The boy and the robot both are saddened by the killing, but when the two hunters show up to claim the body and see the huge robot, one of them cries out, “It’s the monster!” What an irony that it is “the monster” who grieves over the killing of a creature for sport. Let us hope that her two future productions listed on IMDB, Nappily Ever After and The Perfect Candidate will be as good as her first two films!

This review with a set of discussion questions is in the July issue of Visual Parables.


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