Young Feminist Film Club: Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley was still a teenager when she wrote her most famous novel, the Gothic masterpiece 'Frankenstein or a Modern Promethus'. In the spirit of championing young, forward thinking and creative minds, we reached out to the young women at South Hampstead High School and asked them to share their thoughts on Haifaa al-Mansours new film, Mary Shelley, in cinemas and on demand now.
Curzon Film Podcaster Amy Watts met with Emma, Evie and Freddie at their school to talk all things Mary Shelley. Here you can listen to their conversation, and find 17 year-old Freddie's review of the film below.
Over the past years, we have seen a series of coming to age films about strong young women. It is within this context Mary Shelley appears, showing that across centuries young women have strived to assert their place in the world: daughter of a superstar political couple, half-orphan, stepdaughter, runaway at 16, mother in her teens, best-selling author at 18, widow at 25. This is what movies are made of, only that it is a strikingly true life.
200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s 1818 literary masterpiece 'Frankenstein or A Modern Prometheus,' director Haifaa al-Mansour draws out not only a prominent feminist figure but a very real young woman on the cusp of what may become the most defining time of her life. The film introduces us to 16-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, daughter of anarchist William Godwin and 'Vindication of the Rights of Woman' author, Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary (Elle Fanning) is weighted by the legacy of her parents, the death of her mother and by her own uncertainty of the future. In walks radical Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), fresh from expulsion from Oxford, coming across as a kind of 19th-century Jim Morrison. Percy is drawn by Mary’s political roots and literary passion, and about 15 minutes later we find Mary alongside her half-sister Claire, moving from home to pursue free love and radical writing.
Interspersed with quotes from her diaries, 'Frankenstein' and Shelley’s poetry, the true voices of the characters echo through. As much as al-Mansour hails her strengths, she also emphasises a sense of uncertainty, quoting Mary herself: ‘I feel a frustration, a constant whisper that I am no closer to achieving my dreams,’ a feeling with which all young people can identify.
The real strengths of the film are the strong female relationships that it builds. The tested, yet loving bond between Mary and Claire (Bel Powley) shines a refreshing spotlight on the Godwin sisters and in many ways saves Claire from her status of ‘the other sister’ so defined by her relationship with poet-superstar, Lord Byron. Most men in the film are entirely unsympathetic, which occasionally seems an unfair portrayal: Mary’s emotional relationship with Percy Shelley dominates the narrative between them, overlooking their democratic collaborative work which might have offered a more surprising insight for young feminist viewers. Speaking of men, Byron (Tom Sturridge) embodies the image of 19th century misogyny - introduced as he struts out of his Geneva house to greet Percy with a kiss; Byron’s sexuality is touched upon yet not fully explored.
al-Mansour’s interpretation focusses on the damaging effects the free-love experimentations of this Romantic circle had upon women, and risks leaving its powerful female characters to be defined by their victimisation. However, overall the film is a successful exposure of the extreme circumstances in which 'Frankenstein' was created; by just 20 years old Mary had endured more struggle than many could imagine in a lifetime, all through which she wrote with fervour. When 'Frankenstein' was published in 1818, the author’s name was not on the cover. In 2018, though her authorship is printed on the work, Mary Shelley’s name is still shrouded by her scandalous reputation, diminished by her relationship with Percy Shelley, and by an ignorance of her work as a radical social and scientific commentary. Hopefully, this film will recognise her as the true feminist icon she is and give her name the esteem it deserves.
[Words by Freddie Liese, 17 year old Sixth-Form Student of English, Politics, History & German at South Hampstead High School]
The tempestuous romance that inspired one of Gothic literature’s most influential works is brought to life in Mary Shelley, a luscious and moving period drama starring Elle Fanning as the radical young writer.
When 16 year old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin runs away with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, her family are horrified. Young and passionately in love, at first she relishes life amongst the radical Romantics. But as time goes on, Percy’s betrayals and indiscretions begin to test their relationship.
One day, on a trip to Lord Byron’s mansion in Geneva, Mary is challenged to write a ghost story. Drawing on her experiences of heartbreak and the dark side of humanity, she creates ‘Frankenstein’, a work that will shape the literary world for centuries.
With a strong ensemble cast including Douglas Booth, Bel Powley and Maisie Williams, this rousing and exquisite biopic balances sumptuous period detail with a timely feminist message. Directed by Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker, Haifaa al-Mansour (Wadjda), it’s a vivid tribute to Shelley’s passion, courage and craft - and a reminder of her enduring relevance today.