Mary Shelley: The ‘Sturm und Drang’ that Inspired Frankenstein

The early life of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of the Gothic novel Frankenstein, is recounted in Mary Shelley (2018) a period drama/romance written by Emma Jensen and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. It was originally titled The Storm in Our Stars, and focuses mainly on the relationship between Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and how their relationship inspired Frankenstein—the story of a mad doctor who reanimated a corpse using electricity. It left me wishing someone had shot a jolt of electricity into this sullen and mediocre film.

The year is 1814. Sixteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin (Elle Fanning) lives in London with her father, writer and book seller William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), her stepmother, Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggatt), and stepsister, Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley). Mary greatly admires her birth mother, early feminist theorist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died when she was a baby. Her rebellious streak sets her at odds with her more conventional stepmother, and her father sends her away to Scotland.

In Scotland, Mary meets 21-year-old poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), who follows her back to London under the pretense of becoming her father’s student. The two fall in love, but things get complicated when Percy’s wife Harriet (Ciara Charteris) shows up with their young son. Bucking social convention, Mary, Percy, and Claire run away together and face financial hardship and the death of their first child.

Meanwhile, Claire attracts the attention of Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) and becomes pregnant. Together with John Polidori (Ben Hardy), they spend a few tumultuous weeks together in Geneva, where Byron challenges them to a ghost story writing contest. This inspires Mary to begin writing Frankenstein. After becoming estranged over Percy’s deplorable personality, the two reunite in her father’s bookshop and live happily ever after.

Historically, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) was the daughter of radical political philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. She met Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley as a teen and they married in 1816 after Percy’s first wife, Harriet, committed suicide. Mary Shelley is mostly known for writing the Gothic novel Frankenstein (1818), which was published when she was twenty years old. Percy died in a boating accident in 1822 and Mary returned to England with their fourth and only surviving child. She went on to publish several other novels, in addition to promoting her late husband’s work.

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The Secret Scripture: A Romantic Irish Tale

An elderly woman with an enigmatic past pines her days away in an asylum, until a doctor begins investigating her case and ultimately gives them both a second chance at life in The Secret Scripture (2016). It is a romantic tale filmed on location in Ireland and is one of those films audiences seemed to like but critics panned. Beautiful cinematography and emotional depth masks an otherwise ridiculous plot.

The Secret Scripture is based on a novel of the same name by Sebastian Barry, author of A Long Long Way (2005). It was released in Canada and the U.K. in 2016 but came to the U.S. in October of this year. It was adapted for the screen and directed by Jim Sheridan, who also directed My Left Foot (1989) and The Boxer (1997). Both Sebastian Barry and Jim Sheridan were born in Dublin and have focused their careers on highlighting the Irish experience.

The film centers on Roseanne McNulty (Vanessa Redgrave), an elderly woman in a mental institution who allegedly murdered her child. Dr. William Grene (Eric Bana) comes to evaluate Rose to see if she is sane enough to live on her own, because the institution is being remodeled into a spa. Dr. Grene becomes fascinated with her life story after discovering a journal she’s kept, written on the pages of a Bible.

As a young woman, Rose (Rooney Mara) lives in Belfast with her sweetheart, Michael McNulty (Jack Reynor). He leaves to join the British air force during World War 2. She moves to the Irish countryside to escape the German bombing raids, only to run afoul of local conventions. After being exiled from her aunt’s cafe to an isolated cottage, Michael just so happens to be shot down in her backyard and she hides him from Irish partisans.

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The Limehouse Golem: A Ghoulish Portrayal of Victorian London

Based on the 1994 novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd, The Limehouse Golem (2016) is a ghoulish portrayal of a Victorian London slum and the stone-faced detective trying to solve a series of grizzly and sensational crimes. It was directed by Juan Carlos Medina and adapted for the screen by Jane Goldman.

Medina is an inexperienced director, having only four films under his belt since 2001, and only two were full-length. Goldman wrote screenplays for The Woman in Black (2012), X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), and Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). Her talented script shines through.

In the opening act, Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke) is arrested on suspicion of poisoning her husband, John (Sam Reid). Meanwhile, Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) is tasked to solve the “Limehouse Golem” murders, which have become sensationalized in the press. He enlists the help of a Limehouse bobby George Flood (Daniel Mays).

They discover the Golem’s diary written on the pages of “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” (1827) by Thomas De Quincey in a library and narrow the suspects to four men: philosopher Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), writer George Gissing (Morgan Watkins), comedian Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), and John Cree.

Inspector John Kildare is not an adept detective and even refers to himself as a scapegoat. Focusing almost entirely on handwriting analysis to whittle down a list of four suspects, he misses obvious clues like the fact that no new murders occur after the death of John Cree and the imprisonment of Elizabeth. The Limehouse Golem made it clear he was seeking fame above all else; he would not let someone else take the blame while he quietly slipped away, meaning the murderer had to either be John or Elizabeth.

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The Lost City of Z

Written and directed by James Gray, The Lost City of Z (2016) traces the life of British soldier and explorer Percy Fawcett. Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is compelled to scour the Amazon for evidence of a lost civilization. Along the way, he’ll repeatedly abandon his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and his children and overcome resistance from skeptical colleagues, all to ultimately come up empty handed. It is based on a book of the same name by David Grann.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing this film since its release, because it’s one of those real life stories more incredible than fiction. Percy Fawcett’s adventures inspired both Indiana Jones and Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World (1912). Unfortunately, The Lost City of Z was less an adventure film and more a plodding, meandering biopic that never quite finds its footing.

As the film opens, we see Percy Fawcett at the cusp of the British upper class. He is a major in the army, but has no medals; he goes on a hunt and kills the stag, but is not invited to dine on it. We see he’s skilled, daring, and willing to take risks. However, this isn’t quite an introduction.

The film makers assume their audience already knows who Percy Fawcett is, but he is a relatively obscure historical figure, especially to American audiences. It’s crucial to quickly establish the identity of the main character and why he is important. Otherwise, you lose the audience’s attention.

Thirteen minutes into the film, a plot finally appears. We learn Fawcett’s father was a gambling drunkard, and he is told that if he completes his mission to map the Bolivian border it will redeem his family name.

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