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Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Movie review: Mary Shelley, dir Haifaa al-Mansour (2017)

This competent biopic tells the story of the appearance of the novel ‘Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus’ 200 years ago this year. Its pacing is very fine and the characterisation in it is for the most part solid. The young Mary (Elle Fanning) gives a good account of the way a woman would have felt about romance and love in the first decades of the 19th century. There are a lot of strong close-ups where her face speaks volumes as the viewer sees the drama unfold. I’m still not sure about all the passionate French kissing (that’s what we called it when I was a teenager, in the 1970s), which seemed to me to be unjustified and also a little outre given the era being portrayed. I think 2009’s ‘Bright Star’, about John Keats, another second-generation Romantic poet, is more accurate in this regard. It was directed by New Zealand’s Jane Campion.

The weakest character is probably Mary’s stepmother (nicely played by a tight-lipped Joanne Froggatt), a shrewish and unpleasant woman with a tendency to unfairly scold her husband’s daughter. The bookish intellectual William Godwin (a suitably dishevelled Stephen Dillane) often looks stupid as a result of this well-intentioned but tendentious bit of writing by Emma Jensen. The woman could have been just half as abrasive and still have contributed to Mary's leaving her father’s house. The example provided by her unorthodox mother was unquestionably one of the main reasons Mary quit the place, and I will talk more about this dynamic in the society of the time later in this review. Godwin’s dour and worthy nature comes across well enough but with his wife causing so much turmoil in the household, as a father he appears somewhat incompetent. In her 2018 biography, ‘In Search of Mary Shelley’, British author Fiona Simpson tries to make a similar case against the woman. Simpson admits however that all of Mary’s diaries and letters went missing in the years after she eloped with Percy, so documentary evidence about her treatment at the hands of her step-mother is likely scant either way.

Overall, the functional (rather than inspired) script is predominantly humourless, and so Claire Clairmont, Mary’s bubbly and naïve step-sister (played by Bel Powley) has a lot of weight to carry. She is the one of the only light-hearted things in this rather correct drama that works hard to tick off all the right PC dot points.

And there’s an unfortunate shortage of poetry here too (troublingly ironic in a movie in which poets play such important parts). Some of the mood scenes, such as those at a stage near the beginning of the film showing the highlands of Scotland, where Mary is sent by her father to get her out of her stepmother’s hair, present some relief, and Mary’s face does a lot of work in conveying buried emotion and dramatic nuance. Given the louche nature of both Percy Shelley (a voluble Douglas Booth) and Lord Byron (a rebarbative Tom Sturridge), the plain-speaking and frank John Polidori (Ben Hardy) is a breath of fresh air. A little salad on the side to offset the rather high-toned flavours of the two poets’ questionable mains. In the film, normality is often called for as the young men struggle with their task of combating the entrenched injustices of the time and the young women struggle to keep their relationships intact.

I read one review that lambasted the movie where the writer seemed to mostly take exception to the character of Percy, but I think that a bit of backgrounding is necessary to fully grasp the scope of what the two men were trying to achieve with their writing. And their lives. Britain at the time Mary’s novel was published was a democracy but the electoral franchise was very limited. There had been a push to extend it in the wake of the 1789 revolution in France but, fearing revolution at home, the authorities in London cracked down on dissent in the middle of the 1790s in light of the chaotic and bloody purges that were taking place in Paris. Some of the London protesters who were subsequently convicted of treason were even sent to New South Wales as punishment. It would not be until 1832 after a concerted campaign by British workers, intellectuals, and Whig politicians that the franchise was broadened to give more people the vote (men only, naturally).

In the absence of effective representation, many people suffered at the hands of a selfish elite and the powers in charge of government, including the king. So, when Percy met Mary many things were actively being reimagined by writers and other radicals (the word dates from precisely this period). It was natural that the institution of marriage would also be up for renegotiation. It is in this context that Percy asked Mary for freedom to take to bed anyone he wanted. In this regard, the decision behind the casting of Storridge, who looks a lot like Freddie Mercury, as Byron, was sensational. The kiss Byron plants on Percy’s lips when Percy, Mary and her half-sister arrive by horse-drawn carriage at Byron’s Swiss chalet is a dramatic emblematisation of the types of questioning of roles that men and women were performing in their mental lives at the time.

The arm of the American Revolution was long, and it found a way into the most intimate parts of the individual’s life. I feel I have to hasten to add that this short summary of the politics of sex as it functioned at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century should not be read as a justification for Percy’s callow philandering. It might however help contemporary viewers understand what was happening in the young men’s heads.

That Mary resented Percy is completely comprehensible, of course. There’s even an accessible user guide for this film, in the form of Jane Austen’s novel, ‘Mansfield Park’, that people now can read if they want to know how the average woman of the times thought of the progressive ideas that were gaining traction in those decades before Victoria ascended the throne. These days, Austen readers often complain about this 1814 novel, comparing it unfavourably with others the author wrote, but it’s always been my favourite. In it, Austen introduces two young people, Mary and Henry Crawford, who arrive at the Bertram’s house to keep its occupants company as the two young people spend some time in the country. They are an engaging young brother and sister, and Edmund Bertram (who the heroine Fanny Price is secretly in love with), falls for Mary. Fanny keeps her mouth shut but her eyes open. In the end, she is vindicated. Henry elopes with one of the Bertram daughters and there’s a scandal. Finally, Fanny gets what she wanted all along: to marry her cousin.

In the novel, Austen examines the consequences of the liberal views that were being aired in her day. Henry and Mary Crawford might look bright and talk an engaging line but they are fundamentally corrupt for the same reason that viewers of this film will find the character of Percy to be a dickhead. Austen was a solid Tory all her life and her novel is a commentary on exactly the kind of person Percy Shelley and Lord Byron were in real life. Rumours spread even to the remotest parts of rural Hampshire, where Austen lived for much of her life. The portrayal of the two poets in the film is therefore to my mind entirely realistic. But it’s too easy to complacently tut-tut about Percy’s poor morals and caddish behaviour as they appear in the film. The times were different in those days. It’s only now, in the 21sty century, that we can see that constancy and reliability are just as important in a man as brilliance and talent. At the time, many didn’t see this. Sharp-eyed Austen, however, knew what was what.

As an aside that yet remains on point, Fanny is sometimes talked about in the same sentence as Mary Wollstonecraft. There is something so heartrending about Fanny’s situation and her steely yet subterranean curiosity that brings to mind the constant series of dramas that was Wollstonecraft’s life. Fanny’s yearning for the transcendent and her devotion to Edmund despite his shortcomings have about them some poignant echoes of the writings of Wollstonecraft as she tried to remain linked with the peripatetic father of Fanny Imlay, their daughter. (It’s not clear what happened to Fanny Imlay in the movie, as she grew up in the Godwin household with Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont and suicided in 1816.)

Austen also has an antidote to the bitchy Mary Jane Clairmont, Godwin’s second wife. In the novel already mentioned, Lady Bertram, the matriarch of the family, is an utterly indolent and dull creature whose life revolves entirely around her pet pugs. With her wicked sense of humour, Austen lanced one of the boils she saw infecting the novels she grew up with (including Godwin’s), and made the evil stepmother into a running joke. And a benign one. Lady Bertram nevertheless manages without too much fuss to oversee the upbringing of her four rather stupid children as well as look after her husband’s house.

If only Mary Jane Clairmont had a bit more of Lady Bertram in her! The film would have been a better product if she had done.

The real kicker in the end however is that few people read Mary Shelley’s novel any more apart from university students who have it set as a text to read for assignments they have to submit to their teachers for assessment. This is a pity as the novel in question raises questions about science and progress that we are still struggling with today. New artefacts of popular culture, movies such as 1984’s ‘Terminator’ and 2014’s ‘Ex Machina’, lead us to similar questions as Mary was asking all those years ago: what is the right use of the knowledge that we have gained through research and publication over the generations since the Renaissance?

Austen’s novels on the other hand are still read with pleasure by large numbers of people who are entranced by her epigrammatic wit and the stylish sophistication of her characterisation and plotting. But during her lifetime, Austen’s novels appeared without her name on the title page. The first one was put out as “by a lady” and the second one, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, was put out as “by the author of Pride and Prejudice”. After she died in 1817, her brother published the two of her novels that had not yet gone to print, and for the first time her name was attached to her printed work.

The makers of this film enjoy today liberties and rights that Mary’s mother could only dream about even as she desperately fought for them. What is remarkable about both writers furthermore is the way they were nurtured in their passion for words by the vibrant reading culture that existed in Britain then. Austen’s father was a great reader of novels, and encouraged his daughter’s adolescent sallies (which you can read today, they are called her “juvenilia”). Lending libraries scattered throughout the country fed a strong appetite in the community for works of fiction and non-fiction. You might not have the money to buy the set of books that many novels appeared as (paper was relatively expensive at the time, comparted to today) but you could afford the subscription price at your local lending library, giving you access to the most recent publications coming out of London and Edinburgh.

This film has strong links to Australia, by the way. Director al-Mansour studied film-making at the University of Sydney and Jensen, the screenwriter, is originally from Brisbane.

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