Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A good bio-pic about a rarely-explored woman: Haifaa Al-Mansour's intelligent MARY SHELLEY

Although Frankenstein, in all its many derivations, is almost never not in the crosshairs of our current culture, its author, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, is much too rarely there. (One of the more recent and best of these derivations is the cable series Penny Dreadful. If you've still not seen it -- perhaps the best-written of all "supernatural" series -- do yourself a favor and Netflix stream it now.) Opening this week in limited release in New York, L.A. and via VOD the following week is a new movie devoted to this quite interesting woman and her late-teen/early-adult life.

MARY SHELLEY, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour (shown at right) and written by Emma Jensen (with some help from Ms Al-Mansour), is not a great bio-pic but it is good enough to engulf the viewer in the place and time period (Great Britain from 1814 through 1818) and the characters of Mary and her family; her lover and mate, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley; the famous Lord Byron, and others.

Older viewers may faintly remember a 1986 movie entitled Gothic, the only so-so Ken Russell version of these folk. The big difference here is that Al-Mansour concentrates on the characters of the women, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont, played respectively and very well indeed by Elle Fanning (below, center left) and Bel Powley (at left, below).

These two actresses are well abetted by the film's two male leads, Douglas Booth (above, center right, and below) as Shelley and Tom Sturridge (above, right) as Byron. Mr. Booth, in particular, seems to grow stronger and more versatile with each role. (Don't miss his terrific turn as the music hall entertainer Dan Leno in The Limehouse Golem.) Here he brings such charisma, beauty, intelligence and passion to his rendition of Shelley that you'll understand perfectly how and why just about everyone fell for the man and his poetry.

If the writing is fairly ordinary -- not bad, just nothing special -- the movie still holds you via its often dark period look, the story it tells, and the very good performances from the entire cast. Ms Fanning gets inside Mary well enough to bring you along, too, and Ms Powley's Claire, always in Mary's shadow, makes a sweet, sad, Look-at-me-I'm here-too! sidekick.

The various strands -- events and psychology -- that might well have led Mary to create her unexpected masterwork are brought to life appealingly and believably, and the facts of how and why this enduring tale was created by a woman and yet had initially to be published without that woman's name attached to it adds strongly to the movie's never-pushy-but-feminist-all-the-same conclusions.

From IFC Films and running a lengthy but never boring 121 minutes. the movie opens this Friday in New York City at the Quad Cinema and in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Monica Film Center, with its VOD debut coming the following Friday, June 1.

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