Mary Shelley

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Mary Shelley Movie Poster Image
Interesting but uneven drama about famous female author.
  • PG-13
  • 2018
  • 121 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Some iffy behavior/decisions, but positive messages include the idea that women and their talents should be treated as equal to men and their talents. Also encourages open and honest communication between romantic partners and strong bonds between sisters/friends.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Mary perseveres despite many challenges (especially grief) to write her book. She cares for her husband, stepsister, and baby to the best of her ability. Percy and Lord Byron are brilliant but flawed, though ultimately Percy does treat Mary with respect for her talent and ability. Mary and Percy love each other despite their different attitudes toward monogamy. Claire exhibits signs of poor self-esteem.

Violence

Mary slaps someone who propositions her. Terrible/upsetting scene in which it's obvious that Mary and Percy's baby has died. Mary, Percy, and Claire run in a panic from debt collectors. Discussion of suicide and child death.

Sex

Several scenes of passionate kissing; love scenes on beds that show half-dressed couples having sex. A woman discusses being a prominent man's lover and then getting pregnant by him. Mary and Percy discuss then-radical views (some of which were also held by her late mother) about polyamory, open marriage, ménages à trois, etc.

Language

Coded language and insults like "ruined," "coward," "immoral," etc.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults drink (a few characters to extreme excess) and smoke cigarettes.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Mary Shelley is a historical drama that stars Elle Fanning as the titular 19th-century author. The movie centers on Mary's love story with married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth) and the various events that inspired her to persevere and write her masterpiece, Frankenstein. There's some romance and sex (including a few love scenes featuring half-dressed couples), as well as alcohol/substance use and discussions of relationships and situations that were considered scandalous at the time (polyamory, etc.). Viewers will learn a great deal about both Mary and her husband and others in their circle of young, often controversial artists and writers.

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What's the story?

MARY SHELLEY is a biographical drama about Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of outspoken feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and political philosopher William Godwin, both influential thinkers of the late 18th century and early 19th century. Mary (Elle Fanning) grows up loving horror stories. One day she meets handsome young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), and the two discuss their shared radical ideas, including acceptance of unconventional lifestyles (like that of Mary's late mother). Mary and Percy quickly fall in love, and Percy offers to be Godwin's (Stephen Dillane) apprentice. Even though Percy is legally still married to his first wife, he and Mary run away together, her stepsister Claire (Bel Powley) in tow. Both Percy and Mary are disowned and live like (mostly) happily starving artists ... until she gets pregnant and experiences tragedies that end up inspiring the writing of Frankenstein.

Is it any good?

Fanning's performance shows off her talent, but the movie makes you yearn to learn more about the author's post-Frankenstein transformation. Director Haifaa Al-Mansour's exploration of Mary's scandalous love affair with Percy and the subsequent life challenges leading up to the writing of the book that changed her life isn't nearly as exquisite as her directorial debut, Wadjda, but it's also a feminist tribute to a young woman who was ahead of her time. Mary's state of mind swings from thrilled and excited to miserable and heartbroken, and the visuals signal that shift as well.

The film spends a bit too much time covering the more salacious aspects of the Shelleys' forbidden romance and not enough time on the reasons that Mary stayed with the beautiful, brilliant, but damaged genius Shelley. Although writer Emma Jensen and Al-Mansour's choice to delay depicting Shelley's writing of Frankenstein until the end of the movie is understandable, it would have been more satisfying to see more of how the book's publication (with her actual name attached) changed her life. Still, despite its flaws, Mary Shelley remains worth seeing for the riveting facts about the groundbreaking writer's backstory.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what they learned about Mary by watching Mary Shelley. Is it surprising that the author of the classic horror novel Frankenstein was a young woman?

  • Is Mary a role model? Why, or why not? Which character strengths does she display? Discuss how women's rights have changed since Shelley wrote her book. Did you know that women authors in certain genres still change their names to sound more masculine?

  • What do you think about Mary and Percy's relationship and marriage? Do you think their romance would still be scandalous today? Do you agree with Mary that people should be free to love whomever and however they choose?

  • How accurate do you think the movie is? Why might filmmakers choose to alter the facts in a story based on real life? How could you find out more about Mary and the other people in the film?

  • What are the themes of the original Frankenstein story? Does this movie deal with the same themes? New ones?

Movie details

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