Review / ‘Mary Shelley’ (PG) *** and a half

STUDENTS of cinema’s horror genre may well know the debt they owe to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (née Godwin) for her winning (after much travail and frustration) entry in a contest that the literary glitterati used to divert the discomfort of a Swiss winter in 1816.

The film bearing her name purports to tell the story of her affair with married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley whom, after the suicide of his first wife in a short-lived marriage, she married and bore three children before Shelley died six years later.

We might wonder how correctly it describes the Swiss house party forming its dramatic core. Wonder no more. The bulk of Emma Jensen’s debut feature screenplay from which Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour has constructed this interesting film depends on John Polidori’s diary, which forms the foundation of the scholarship that subsequently told the world what happened.

Polidari was personal physician to Lord George (“mad, bad and dangerous to know”) Byron who had wealth enough to host that house party where great shenanigans unfolded amid poetry which endures to this day. The film implies rather than depicts guests’ erotic cavortings although it is acceptably frank when necessary.

Elle Fanning plays Mary with varying energy levels. Bel Powley plays Mary’s stepsister Claire. Douglas Booth plays Shelley. Tom Sturridge plays Byron. And Stephen Dillane has a pivotal role as Mary and Claire’s book-selling philosopher father William Godwin whose screen time may be brief but whose influence on Mary was significant. Dillane may not be so well known as other actors but he can give lessons in that craft to many.

Writer and executive producer Emma Jensen has chosen examples of poems for Shelley, Byron and Coleridge to deliver during the house party and elsewhere during the film. One can only wonder what Shelley might have produced had he not died shortly before his 30th birthday when his boat sank in a storm. He was, after all, a poet, not a mariner. Mary survived him by 29 years and didn’t remarry. While she did have the comfort of the world knowing her role in writing “Frankenstein” I can’t help wondering what she might have felt about how movie-makers have treated it.

At Palace Electric

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