Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Mary Shelley (2017)

Mary Godwin (Elle Fanning) writing at her mother's grave

From left to right: Claire Clairemont, Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron
The Sexual Revolution of the 1960's was not the first time in history that restraint was thrown to the winds. The generation which was born during and immediately after the French Revolution came of age as the era of Romanticism reached full bloom. Romanticism capitalized on the energy of the political revolutions to challenge the mores of Christian civilization. Its adherents sought to live lives based upon raw emotion, free from the hypocrisies of society, while delving into the depths of passion, of horror, of despair, with the occasional moment of ecstasy. Such was the sort of existence that young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, born in London on August 30, 1797, thirsted after with all her heart. In Mary Shelley (2017), Mary (Elle Fanning) is shown growing up her father's London bookshop, which the great minds of the age frequented with regularity. The household is rich with ideas and learning but poor as far as money and opportunities.

Mary, being the daughter of two renowned radical intellectuals, William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, loves to write and wants to see the world. It seems natural then for Mary at age sixteen to run away with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, her father's student. Percy, a married man, has fallen in love with the teenager, who of course is with enamored with him. Flouting convention, they create a major scandal, and Mary is soon pregnant. Mary's free-thinking father, who is all for open relationships, is horrified and refuses to speak to his daughter for years. Her vivacious stepsister Jane Clairemont alias Claire, joins the naughty pair in their exile from respectable society, which in real life transpired mostly in Italy. In the film, the trio is confined mostly to a dreary garret in London, with an occasional stay in a grand home.

The climax of the film is when Mary, Percy and Claire manage an invitation to stay at a castle in Switzerland with Lord Byron, by whom Claire is pregnant. Byron is played as an utterly narcissistic boor by Tom Sturridge, merrily leading his guests into depravity. By that point in the movie, Mary has become disillusioned with free love and loose living, finding that although she and Percy are free to love each other, he feels himself free to love other women and even encourages her to be with other men, a scenario which disgusts her. Meanwhile, her baby has died, her health is ruined, she has no home, Percy is temperamental and drinks. Instead of the utopia promised her by the new ideas, she has found only monsters, within and without.

It is in Switzerland during a story contest that Mary begins write her novel Frankenstein, based upon recent scientific experiments with electricity and corpses. A young scientist creates a humanoid creature out of corpses, a creature he is unable to control and thus abandons. The creature goes on to wreak havoc and devastation. The novel shows a sophisticated grasp of the forces at work in politics, education, and the sciences, unique for an eighteen year old. Perhaps it is one reason many scholars are convinced the novel was actually written by Percy. However, if Percy had authored the book, there would have been nothing to stop him putting his name on it. As it was, it was only after the book became a best-seller that Mary's name appeared on it. Frankenstein is Mary's rejection of the Enlightenment philosophies embraced by her parents, which had created its own brand of monsters. Interestingly, Dr. Frankenstein's monster is created at the University of Ingoldstadt, home of Adam Weishaupt and the Illuminati who vowed to destroy the throne and the altar. As one article says:
At the time of Frankenstein’s birth, the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria, Germany, a well-known medical school, would have been equipped to support Victor’s scientific experiments. Not only did Ingolstadt provide the perfect setting as the home of the medical university, but also provided the mystery needed as the home of the Order of the Illuminati.

The Illuminati was reported to be a secret society founded in Ingolstadt, specifically the university. The members, said to be students and faculty, are known to have favored freethinking and radical politics and are allegedly tied to the Jacobins. Specific knowledge about the group is unverified, but the myths that were created around their legends provide sufficient influence for believers and for tho se attracted to the mystery surrounding their existence.  Because of the Illuminati, the city of Ingolstadt itself was known for its "intellectual fervor" and for its "revolutionary reconstruction of European society." (Curran) Despite the failure of such factions, Shelley was very interested in these political stirrings, making her choice of setting unsurprising. (Read more.)
Elle Fanning is a lovely Mary, perhaps more beautiful than the girl she portrays; it seems fated that Douglas Booth's devastatingly handsome Percy will fall in love with her at first sight. The couple declare their love while Percy is behaving blasphemously in a church, which many might find disturbing. The Percy Shelley character is a reprobate as is the Lord Byron character. It will be awhile before I can enjoy either of their poems again.The film does not wade into the topic of the Illuminati or the theme of Revolution, but instead contends that Mary has been emotionally abandoned by her husband, even as Frankenstein abandoned his creature. By the end of the film Percy realizes how he has hurt Mary by his behaviors and begs her forgiveness. Both he and her father proudly proclaim her authorship of the work, which is a spectacular success in intellectual circles as well as with the general public. Critics have claimed the film is too shallow a treatment of the relationship of Percy and Mary Shelley and their works. However, I think it accurately portrays the hardship and heartbreak of Mary's youth, as she navigates the most sordid aspects of society in the name of a great romance and free love. It shows how a young girl's sufferings were channeled into the making of a literary masterpiece, a masterpiece which exposes the disorders which occur when man tries to be like God. Share


Hope said...

I was not aware of this movie until I saw your post.
Despite the somewhat happy ending, it is a cautionary tale and I think portrayed the misery of sexual immorality more than I'd expect from a Hollywood movie.

elena maria vidal said...

I agree!