Directed by Haifaa Al Mansour (Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker) and starring Elle Fanning, Mary Shelley at TIFF depicts the ionic author as a modern 19th-century woman, and her infamous Frankenstein as the result of a brilliant imagination influenced by gripping grief.
We meet Mary Shelley when she’s just 16, an outspoken member of a motherless household and daughter to Britain’s famous political philosopher William Godwin. Even at a young age she’s a bookworm with big ideas. She meets Percy Bysshe Shelley (the dashing Douglas Booth), who, though only 21, is already a celebrated young poet (clearly the Rock Stars of the aristocracy). While his passion for putting pen to paper captures Mary’s fascination, its his tendency to play the shameless womanizer with one collapsing marriage already on the books, that creates a terrifying tension.
Defying her beloved but disapproving father, Mary runs away with Shelley in the middle of the night. Her father’s reaction to their controversial coupling offers a perfect example of how an intellectual can argue in favour out out-of-the-box ideas but when adopted by ones own daughter…now that’s a different story.
While early on Mary agrees with Shelley’s “unconventional approach to living,” (trying to make the open relationship happen in the early 1800s seems brave considering it’s still taboo), her mind and heart shifts on the subject once she finds herself preparing for her first pregnancy.
Her debt-ridden bon vivant scribe becomes an unsettled alcoholic after the death of their baby. The couple barely cope with the loss but feel hopeful when invited to Lord Byron’s Swiss chateau outside of Geneva. At the time Byron was the reigning male sex symbol, known for his bisexuality within his close circle as well as on the street.
It is during her time at the chateau, when her husband spirals out of control and the heartless Lord Byron stokes flames, that she finally has a chance to confront her demons to compose the most influential horror novel of all time. Mary Shelley offers Frankenstein fans a brilliant backstory that explains how the young authors painful upbringing inspired such a terrifying tale.