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Movie review: Biopic 'Mary Shelley' recreates romance behind groundbreaking 'Frankenstein'
Elle Fanning as the title character in “Mary Shelley.” - photo by IFC Films

"MARY SHELLEY" — 3 stars — Elle Fanning, Maisie Williams, Ben Hardy, Stephen Dillane, Douglas Booth; PG-13 (sexuality and thematic elements including substance abuse); Broadway

“Mary Shelley” is probably not what you would expect it to be — or at least not as much of what you would expect it to be. But even if it takes an unexpected path to its finish line, the payoff is worthwhile.

Haifaa Al-Mansour’s film is a biopic about the author of the early 19th-century novel “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus,” which for some, marks ground zero for the science fiction genre. But “Mary Shelley” doesn’t spend a lot of time on exotic electric experimentation or the reanimation of dead tissue. Nor does it spend much time on the aftermath of the author’s landmark novel and the long-term fruits of her labors.

Rather, “Mary Shelley” is more of a romantic drama, focusing on the author’s teenage years that run up to “Frankenstein’s” 1818 publication. According to the film, it is that romance in Shelley’s life — or rather, the tumultuous drama it spawned — that inspired the book.

We meet Mary (Elle Fanning) as a 16-year-old girl in London, frequently ducking out of her duties at her father’s dusty bookshop to read ghost stories and experiment with her own prose in a nearby cemetery. She comes from a literary family — her mother was a prolific writer and an advocate for women’s rights before dying shortly after Shelley’s birth — but her father (Stephen Dillane) would rather she steer her interests into more legitimate genres.

It's with this in mind that he sends Mary to Scotland, with the charge to “find your own voice.” Instead, she finds her muse: Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), a wealthy and already successful poet who swiftly captures Mary’s heart — and doesn’t tell her he already has a wife and child.

Most of “Mary Shelley” is built around the twists and turns of this relationship, as Mary and Percy run off together — with Mary’s sister Claire (Bel Powley) in tow — and struggle against a variety of financial, social and romantic troubles. Along the way, Mary must evolve from her shortsighted idealism into the state that eventually produces “Frankenstein.”

Fans of Shelley’s book, or the horror/science fiction genre in general, may be disappointed to only get fleeting glimpses of the specific inspirations that led to that murky, dungeonlike laboratory where Dr. Frankenstein brought his creation to life, and more informed audiences may bristle over the film’s historical accuracy. But “Mary Shelley” succeeds where many films fail, in that Al-Mansour, who also directed 2012’s “Wadjda,” spends enough time with her protagonist to really bring the character to life.

You can read “Mary Shelley” as a critique of the kind of naive, youthful arrogance that questions the wisdom of those who have come before, and it’s easy to see how its themes may be applied today (though, again, that may just be a reflection of its modern interpretation). Mary sets off with Percy on a quest to achieve a kind of morally uninhibited lifestyle, but when she sees its reality, she realizes she harbors other, stronger values deep down.

Fanning is excellent as Mary, emoting maturity and growing wisdom juxtaposed against fading youth and innocence. Though she gets support from Booth and Tom Sturridge, who plays Lord Byron, another reckless and wealthy artist, Fanning carries the film on her shoulders and does an impressive job.

Horror fans may yearn for more of the macabre, and its historical groundings may be up for debate, but “Mary Shelley” is an engaging character study and a celebration of a landmark author.

"Mary Shelley" is rated PG-13 for sexuality and thematic elements including substance abuse; running time: 120 minutes.

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