By Lillian Lu
*This post contains spoilers for the film Mary Shelley.*
The recently released film, Mary Shelley (2018), directed by Haifaa al-Mansour (Wadjda) and written by Emma Jensen (Creating Fortune), received, at best, lukewarm reviews. Most film critics were disappointed in how the narrative falls unexcitingly into the genre of biopic. Others lamented that the film does not do justice to Mary Shelley the historical figure, so ahead of her contemporaries, and that the screenplay allows her husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, to upstage her.
For the most part, I agree. The romantic (lower-case “r”) reconciliation of an ending does much to derail—or at least destabilize—the first couple of hours of the film. Although this reconciliation is premised on Percy Shelley announcing the true authorship of Frankenstein to a crowd of men, the fact that what is supposed to be a moment of professional empowerment for Mary Shelley is also a romantic reconciliation dilutes the message that the rest of the film tries so hard to assert. Yet I think that the first 80% or so of the film bears possibilities for recuperation, for it is within this first portion that I saw what I have seldom seen in representations of women in film, and especially in discourses on Mary Shelley and her 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus.
During this first part of the film, Mary Shelley, played masterfully by Elle Fanning (The Beguiled), states several times to her half-sister and confidante, Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley, Carey Pilby), “You do not need them. You do not need any of them.” She is referring to society here, but more particularly to men, exemplified by Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge, Far from the Madding Crowd), who exploit women’s feelings and bathe in their own patriarchal abilities to travel, to live freely in love and in profession, and to judge. Indeed, the film spends long sequences aligning us with Mary Shelley’s discerning, judging gaze. We watch as she watches Lord Byron with disdain. We watch as she falls in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (Douglas Booth, Loving Vincent) audacity and intellect, and as she grows increasingly disillusioned by his lack of responsibility. We watch as she notes a tender sensibility in John Polidori (Ben Hardy, X-Men: Apocalypse). Even if the camera is positioned so that we watch her face, Fanning’s confident gait and intelligent eyes gaze back, resisting objectification. Mary Shelley insists upon being read on her own terms, terms that are not in need of anyone else.
This is emancipatory for the canon of representations of Mary Shelley. It has been a professional and personal qualm of mine that, even in scholarly circles this year celebrating the 200th anniversary of her famous novel, I have witnessed writers calling the author by her first name and fixating inordinately on her young age, her virginal status before meeting the poet Shelley, and the fact that several of her children died young. A few claims, then: 1.) If we do not call her husband merely “Percy,” I contend that it is important we do not call her “Mary.” 2.) We must stop insisting on equating her bodies of work with her body (her status as a virgin, mother, widow, etc). What does it tell us about ourselves if we still feel the need to make mention of her deceased children, of her miscarriages, of her sorrows? Mentioning biographical facts is not a fault in itself, but the sheer repetition of these facts in an abundance of pieces about the author is striking. It tells us that we lack the vocabulary and critical frameworks to think and talk about female intelligence, female genius, female-written texts. It tells us that we need to create this vocabulary.
And Mary Shelley the film begins to forge a way for us to think about female genius. Towards the end of the movie, when Mary Shelley finally sits down to write Frankenstein, there is what I will call the genius montage, something that we see in several detective and action movies with male leads (practically every Benedict Cumberbatch-led film has one of these montages). We know the montage, the one in which the protagonist comes upon the crucial epiphany: several images and flashbacks, usually from the character’s point of view, overlaying the genius’s actual act of creation or problem-solving; music soars in the background; the montage ends with a gesture of relief, the putting down of the pen, the sigh of satisfaction, the incredulous smile. Mary Shelley gets a genius montage in this film, and it is no small thing. It dawned on me while I was watching how rare such a moment is for a woman in film. Indeed, clips in the montage feature her grief over losing her child, but most of the montage is constituted by her memories of scenes we have already witnessed from her youth, now with a twist: they are from her point of view, recalled with discerning sobriety, shedding light on the cruelty of men and the injustices she has had to endure. In short, there are things that we as the viewers have missed out on, have not been privy to, have not paid enough attention to. But her gaze has. Her gaze is privileged and more powerful.
This biopic does not paint a utopian world for Mary Shelley. There are no delusions that she and Percy Bysshe Shelley are perfectly happy after their reconciliation. However, in spite of that penultimate scene of romantic reconciliation, the film does a prodigious job with going where few representations of Mary Shelley’s life have gone before: it shows her as the intelligent woman she is. As she says in a scene wherein a publisher suggests that the book was penned by her husband, she answers indignantly, “It is my story…Do you save this insult for young women? And you dare to question a woman’s ability to experience loss, death, betrayal. All of which is present in this story. In my story. Which you would have realized if you’d employed the time judging the work instead of judging me.” Here, she does not tell us to do away with biographical reading all together, but instead emphasizes that we must acknowledge the humanity of women and their capacity to know, understand, and create. And we must acknowledge, too, that a strictly biographical reading does not service us or her. It is this last statement, that we should spend more time judging her work instead of her, that I think viewers, scholars, and readers of Mary Shelley the person and Mary Shelley’s work would benefit from taking seriously.