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Mary Shelley: A New to Kanopy Movie Review

Jillian Oliver

Jillian Oliver

Jillian is a New Orleans-based library associate, writer, and movie-lover. When she's not working, she likes to read creative nonfiction, and write for various film sites.

Kanopy –– one of the New Orleans Public Library’s streaming services –– has a plethora of recently added movies and TV shows that are free to watch. Among them is the 2018 literary biopic, Mary Shelley –– a gothic tale about the conception of Shelley’s classic 1818 novel Frankenstein

In this romantic drama, Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin (Elle Fanning) deals with the disapproval of her family when she and poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth) announce their love for each other. Her parents are horrified when they find that the couple has run away, accompanied by Mary’s half-sister, Claire (Bel Powley). While staying in the home of Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) at Lake Geneva, the guests are challenged to write a ghost story, which inspires Mary to pen Frankenstein

Mary Shelley is by and large a teen flick that weaves modern social issues into the narrative. If the viewer can look past this ahistorical slant, the film offers an engrossing love story for those who are becoming acquainted with the Victorian author.

The start of the film shows a sixteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin who is already flexing her writing muscles and devouring sensational ghost stories –– of which her father doesn’t necessarily approve. After a dramatic clash with her step-mother, Mary’s father sends her to Scotland to explore her writing in private, away from the influences of other people. 

Elle Fanning stars in a 2018 biopic about Mary Shelley, the groundbreaking author of "Frankenstein."

It’s there that she meets Percy Shelley, with whom she’s instantly infatuated. Instead of the awkward man Percy was said to be in real life, and who Mary didn’t initially find appealing, Douglas Booth gives him the teen dream treatment.

But the appeal of the male characters is dampened as we learn more about them. Percy and Lord Byron are mostly chauvinists and womanizers, and sometimes downright boorish. Whether Lord Byron and Percy had all of the unsavory traits we see in the film is debatable, but there is still truth to the events of the film. 

Percy Shelley was married to a woman named Harriet at the time he met Mary. She knew of his marriage, but believed Harriet was beneath Shelley intellectually –– a woman concerned more with beauty than the politics and philosophy that stimulated Percy. In Mary he found an equal, someone with whom he could share his most unconventional ideas, namely his atheism and disdain for marital conventions. Mary was also no stranger to unconventional ideas. Her father believed marriage was stifling and her mother authored the controversial text, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, before her untimely death in 1797, just 12 days after the birth of her daughter. 

The film shows how these events lead to her writing an unusually dark book for a woman her age. But death is no stranger to Mary, beginning with her mother and then, most devastatingly, the child she has with Percy when she’s eighteen. The death of her daughter is followed by another event that strikes Mary to her core. When she visits a Phantasmagoria show with Percy and Claire, she’s intrigued when she’s introduced to the science of “galvanism,” the use of electricity to reanimate the dead.   

During this journey, Elle Fanning does a fine job of sweeping the audience along with Mary as the tumult caused by her relationships and losses shape her development as a writer. 

We see a gradual shift from an impulsive teen with a sharp mind to an austere woman emboldened to express her deepest pain to the rest of the world. 

She feels cast out by her father, then by her lover, and experiences the loss of her baby, and from this we gain clarity on how the plight of Frankenstein’s creature was inspired. We even see how Percy may have inspired the arrogant Dr. Frankenstein. For lovers of the book, this fills in many gaps about Mary’s life and motivations. 

The film is ultimately a solid gothic drama, similar in quality and acting to Jane Eyre (2013) and Rebecca (2020). It introduces young people to Mary Shelley with somber cinematography and strong performances. So, if you decide this summer that you’d like to enrich yourself with a good film, log onto Kanopy with your Library card and delve into the world of one of the greatest writers in history. 

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