If you took ninth-grade English, then you probably only know Mary Shelley as the author of Frankenstein. But to the more curious, she is a landmark female author whose novel was considered quite taboo for its time, with many alleging that the book was not written by Shelley but by her more accomplished husband, Percy. Unfortunately, the biopic Mary Shelley, from screenwriter Emma Jensen and director Haifaa Al-Mansour in her English-language debut, is unable to capture the power of Shelley’s words, or at least can only render them at a surface-level. While technically proficient, the film is a mundane encapsulation of the woman who created one of the foundational works of literature.

Still grappling with the death of her mother, acclaimed feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, the young Mary Godwin (Elle Fanning) is shipped off to Scotland, where she meets Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), who seems to understand her wandering spirit. Their relationship is fraught with drama, but it inspires Mary Shelley to find her own voice, one filled with horrors and sadness.

As someone who studied Shelley and English literature, it’s understandable why Al-Mansour and Jensen would present Shelley as she is. The story of a young girl, lonely for a mother figure and drawn to a mysterious man who walks hand-in-hand with tragedy and intensity sounds appealing. It’s what the entire Twilight series is based on! However, to equate Mary Shelley with the teenage girls of a YA novel does a disservice to her memory. The Shelleys are cut from the CW world, or from another bad Douglas Booth-starring literary film, 2013’s Romeo and Juliet.

Elle Fanning’s pouty Mary spends her days scribbling in corners, her forcefully enunciated narration meant to illustrate the intensity that lurks in her soul until her Jane Austenesque stepmother (Joanne Frogett of “Downton Abbey”) ruins everything. After an altercation Mary is sent to Scotland to live with family friends, which leads to a cameo from “Game of Thrones” star Maisie Williams (if one didn’t know her accent was legitimate, it would seem laid on thick). Scotland is where Mary and Percy “meet cute” in a fashion that checks off all the boxes of a typical romance for 1993, not the 1800s. Mary spits out her “who is THAT” with all the power of a teen girl squealing over a new boy. Percy’s non-period appropriate high hair, perpetual half-smirk and deadly white pallor play up his Edward Cullen-like persona, and their “romance” isn’t necessarily the meeting of two great minds, but two kids asking each other to Homecoming.

Al-Mansour’s 2012 debut feature Wadja showed a woman who understood the nuances of systemic oppression of women. Maybe because the director didn’t work on the script as heavily here, Mary Shelley has all the grasp on feminism of a Spice Girls song. It has the feeling of being about “girl power,” but Shelley herself seems hobbled by the story’s desire to focus on her writing purely through the lens of her relationship with her husband. The two struggle with poverty and the loss of a baby with emotion better suited to Bon Jovi. You want these two crazy kids to succeed in a mixed up world, right? But where Percy goes out to drink as a coping mechanism, Mary is left to talk, and talk, and talk. The story attempts to go deeper into the female domain of the era, but those moments come briefly and quickly go. Percy “recommending” Mary change Frankenstein to show a more hopeful look on mankind is a telling moment, emphasizing the mansplaining of the era, but it’s one pertinent moment in two hours of googly-eyes and teen arguing.

Elle Fanning’s struggles with the accent aside, her performance is incredibly one-note. She has one tone, one emotion, and one stare for everything, whether it be the death of her daughter Clara or interaction with her younger sister (the wasted Bel Powley). Fanning lacks the passion, fire or spirit that could elevate the staid script. Her eventual writing of Frankenstein, all of it seemingly inspired by literal events in her life, becomes a boring series of attempts to please men, first her father and then Percy. Douglas Booth is becoming the go-to man for Regency-era dramas, and his Shelley is little different from his Romeo or his Mr. Bingley in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. He’s all hair product and politeness whom the audience can only buy as a poet because he’s English. The worst combination of actor and character is Tom Sturridge as Lord Byron. The script, knowing nothing about what’s made Byron endure for centuries, turns Sturridge in a guyliner rock star who flounces around engaging in pettiness and casual sex.

Mary Shelley is a stagey, uninspired mess that hopes to capture the attention of Jane Austen fans, but it’s a misfire on every level. The movie fails to comprehend Shelley as a woman in her time, as a female writer and as an icon for today.

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