"I have a fire in my soul, and I will no longer allow you or anyone else to contain it," a teenaged Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin declares in the first trailer for Mary Shelley, a new biopic about the famous author coming out in May. The movie follows the young writer in the years leading up to her creating her most-famous novel, Frankenstein. In that time, she met and had an affair with the older Percy Bysshe Shelley, bore and lost her first child, and witnessed some early electrical experiments. All this tumultuous experience contributed to the themes of the book, which was published 200 years ago.
The trailer is the public's first taste of the film, which screened last year at the Toronto International Film Festival to mixed reviews. Portraying Shelley in the biopic is Elle Fanning who Variety's Andrew Barker described in his review as "fully engaged, well-accented, yet somehow miscast." While the film "gets most of the details right, it never quite conveys the sheer radicalness of her life, nor what drove her to live it that way," Barket wrote when the film screened at TIFF.
As Don Kaye points out in SyfyWire, the story of Shelley's early life has been given the motion-picture treatment before, notably in the 1935 prologue to The Bride of Frankenstein as well as in several films made in the 1980s. "But this latest biopic seems to dive more deeply into Shelley's feminist and independent leanings," Kaye writes, "as well as the entrenched sexism she came up against in the literary world."
These themes are a good fit for the film's director Haifaa Al-Mansour, who makes her English-language feature debut with this film. "When I first got the script I wasn't really sure if I should do it because it's an English period piece and I didn't really know what to expect," she said during a radio interview with CBC's Eleanor Wachtel. But when she read the script, she realized she was one of many who didn't know the nuances of Shelley's life history. "It is really important to give Shelley her legacy back," she told Wachtel. "She's a known figure but people know very little about her life."
Shelley was just 18 when she wrote Frankenstein. Although she had already had a number of very adult experiences, like losing a child, if she had shown up at a modern university "she would have been labelled an 'at-risk student,'" Arizona State University professors David Guston and Ed Finn write in the introduction to their 2017 annotated version of the novel. This new film looks deeper into the tumultuous circumstances of her life during this period, and the relationships that drove that tumult. It's Shelley's life seen through a modern lens, fittingly coming to theaters on her ever-topical novel's bicentennial.