Mary Shelley (2018)
Director: Haifaa al-Mansour. Kino-teatr 17th January
Reviewed by Simone Witney
This film is the result of a collaboration between the screen writer, Emma Jenson and Haifaa al Mansour, the first female film director to come from Saudi Arabia.
Haifaa was the eighth of 12 children and her father is the poet Abdul Rahman Mansour. She studied comparative literature at The American University in Cairo and Film Studies at the University of Sydney. Her debut film Wadja was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 2012 and won several awards.
Emma was brought up in Brisbane and studied film making at the Queensland College of Art. She has worked in the UK on Film 4, with Working Title Films and Mushroom Pictures.
The material of the Byron/Shelley/Frankenstein history pulls so readily on a deep trough of emotional clichés, it’s a tough story to take on. But as you might expect from this impressive duo with their shared antipodean roots and cross continental histories, this is a fresh, exquisite and insightful re-imagining.
It examines the emotional and experiential sources of creativity, and is a meditation on the psychological realities of a relationship which is as destructive as it is inspirational. As the word meditation implies this is not a pugilistic, crudely politicised or agenda-fuelled presentation of gender roles. Doctor Polidori, whose story The Vampyre was, like Frankenstein, published under another name (Byron), is a character developed here as a device to widen the perspective of inequalities.
There is a delicate attention to the particulars of women’s vulnerabilities and restrictions which were integral to the society of the period, and extreme, but there’s also a sense of universality. After all, these psychological tropes are just as prevalent today and people continue to spellbind each other in ways which can be just as emotionally catastrophic even given the improvement in social conditions and gender relations.
I was transported by an aesthetic which is limpid and beautifully crafted. From the misty and sometimes ice-bound natural world to sumptuous period interiors and the considered dishevelment of rented lodgings (I have never seen a chesterfield more thoroughly and tastefully trashed), there’s a deft tracking of the emotional feast and famine which is a focus of the film. In fact the production values carry much of the traditional romantic vision we have of the Shelleys.
The palette is a cool one perhaps symbolic of the constant chills of reality and consequence which threaten to overwhelm the passionate ideals and love that drive Mary’s and Percy’s personalities.
Mary’s desire to form her persona through connecting with her dead mother’s passionate unconventional beliefs leave her vulnerable to Percy’s idealising and seductive intensity, but also make her strong enough to attempt opposition to social mores and her own father. The threads of loss and abandonment which are so poignantly developed in the story of Frankenstein are delineated beautifully in the script and through wonderful performances.
There are some odd anachronisms, and I was troubled by the gauche script of Elle Fanning as Mary, but Mary Shelley’s own handwriting was fluid, strong and not wholly elegant, though readable. You can now see the whole manuscript online at shelleygodwinarchive.org/contents/frankenstein
The delicacy, sensitive insights and intelligent imagination of this film seem to have escaped most reviewers. Same old same old? You might think so, I couldn’t possibly comment.
This is another inspired choice by Olga Mamonova who is doing such a remarkable job of curating the cinema at Kino-teatr. But like many of the events, blink and its gone. Look for next month’s documentary theme. Check in HIP for listings.
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