Saturday, April 21, 2018

Talking Tribeca: Mary Shelley

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.

Mary Shelley
Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour
Spotlight Narrative

Some authors are almost synonymous with their works. The name Mary Shelley immediately conjures up images of a monster created by Dr. Frankenstein who has been part of literature and cinema for the past two hundred years, serving as the inspiration for many other horror stories. What’s less known is the history of Shelley herself, who as a woman in the early 1800s wrote a book that propelled her to the kind of success that could only truly be experienced long after her lifetime. Like Emily Dickinson, who got a spotlight in “Wild Nights with Emily” at South by Southwest, Shelley now gets her turn to have her story told.

Mary Wollstonecraft (Elle Fanning) grows up feeling a connection to her father (Stephen Dillane), a bookseller, but much more negatively affected by the repressive attitude of her stepmother (Joanne Froggatt). Gifted a precious getaway to Scotland, she realizes that there is more than she can attain in her life, something that begins to come to fruition when she meets the charming poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). Though their relationship affords her the opportunity to express herself creatively, she is also held back by his own antics and the nature of the times, retreating often to elements that constitute her dreams and will later make up the nightmares of others.

Understanding just what it was that led Shelley to write one of the most iconic horror stories ever written is appealing, especially since it’s likely that there were people and moments in her life that she adapted and transformed into the characters and themes of that original novel. Yet, as a number of other films that have delved into the people behind the work have shown, the story isn’t always quite as intriguing as it may seem. This depiction may have been more effective had it shown some version of the Frankenstein story even as it merely played out in Shelley’s head, since that link isn’t explicitly made and events seem to cut off long before the story reaches a point of truly becoming fascinating.

Fanning is an exceptionally talented actress who, at the age of twenty, has already had a number of terrific and memorable roles. This one is no exception, and she rises far above the material. Bel Powley, portraying her oft-sidelined stepsister Claire, is the true standout in this film that tells its story matter-of-factly without drawing out its more intriguing and worthwhile parts. Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first female Saudi filmmaker who broke out with “Wadjda” in 2012, surely seemed like the perfect choice to bring the story of an underpraised trailblazer to the big screen, but ultimately this plays as more of a forgettable period piece than a truly impactful and transformative ode to a great writer. Maybe the recently-commissioned third season of the TV series “Genius” will provide a more enlightening and involving look at Shelley’s brilliance.


No comments: