I’ve been worried about this movie since I saw the first preview pix. Would it be a serious enough look at all the writers of the period? Would it give the appropriate historical context? Would the costumes suck? These are just some of the things we worry about when a new frock flick comes across our radar here. Well, Mary Shelley (2018) delivers in the end.
What people often forget is that Mary was just 21 when she published Frankenstein, and the work is far more than the scary monster story films have reduced it too. “The Modern Prometheus” is a treatise on creation, birth and death, science and modernity, a riff on Milton’s Paradise Lost, it’s full of poetry and pathos, and so much more. In her short life by the time she had written this masterpiece, Mary had experienced the death of her own mother, a complicated love affair with Percy Bysshe Shelley, rejection by her father, the birth and death of her first child, post-partum depression, and the birth of a second child. Plenty of fodder for a novel of such depth.
This film was created by two women, screenwriter Emma Jensen and director Haifaa Al-Mansour, who have gotten a fairly good handle on the complicated material of Mary Shelley’s early life from around the time of meeting Percy until shortly after the publication of Frankenstein. The outline of the historical facts are there, with some of the necessary abbreviation that happens in any film treatment (for example, only Mary and Percy’s first child is born in this film, and the amount of traveling around Europe that Mary, Percy, and Claire Clairmont do is limited).
What feels most truthful is the emotions that build up into Mary’s writing of her novel. There is a tragic love story at the heart of the film that feeds in to the creation of this art. The script and acting waver between gothic teen angst and tender honesty, and biographers may quibble about how precisely accurate this side of the film is, I enjoyed this take on Mary’s life. Adding to the authenticity is the fact that Elle Fanning, as Mary, was about 17 years old at the time the film was made.
As for the costumes, despite the aesthetic straying into Regency grunge (as I predicted), most of the clothing was appropriate to the characters’ situation and social classes. Plus the costuming helped evoke the moods of the plot and emotions of the characters without being obnoxiously non-historical.
Director Haifaa al-Mansour said of the costume designer in an interview with Mulderville:
“Caroline’s work on this film is extraordinary. I wanted a look that was period and believable, yet fashionable and elegant enough to be appealing to modern sensibilities. She captured this look perfectly! Every costume in the film is gorgeous. I wanted the film to feel current, despite the period setting, so costumes with modern sensibilities were key to achieving that goal.”
That kind of sounds like the costumes are more modernized than they are. IMO, the most “modern” thing about the overall look is a certain limpness to the gowns, either from lack of petticoats (something we’ve complained about in the current Poldark series) or from choice of materials (lots of linen-like stuffs instead of wools or crisp silks; maybe lack of linings, interfacings, tailoring). It’s hard to tell precisely why so many of these costumes look limp without seeing them in person or on display, but in the film it does creates less strictly historical / kind of more modern silhouette.
Yep, this is the worst look in the film. Mary runs around in this thing for much of the first third of the story, as she and Percy fall in love. MEH.
Mary’s friend in Scotland, Isabel (Maisie Williams) wears a similarly floppy lightweight pelisse. The cut is fine, but it’d look more historical in wool or at least with more lining and structure.
OK, we have to address the hair. Mary is 16, but Isabel doesn’t appear to be much older, yet Isabel’s hair is up for this formal dinner, while Mary’s is merely pinned back and flowing down her neck. Leading-character hair, much?
Let’s compare with this portrait of the children Elisabeth, Amalie, & Maximilian von Bayern by Joseph Karl Stieler from 1814. The young girls are wearing formal dresses & their hair is up. Because that’s how it was done.
But it’s not all bad. In some scenes, as when Mary receives a letter from Percy asking her to run away with him, her hair is up & she’s wearing a simple historically accurate gown.
Percy (Douglas Booth) is well-outfitted as befits an aristocrat with embroidered waistcoats and silken cravats.
Again, Mary’s pelisse is a bit soft, but the cut is fine. The ruffled neckwear (a chemisette?) is both a period touch & emphasizes her youthfulness.
This is a scene when some fans ask for Percy’s autograph is a great showcase for costumes — these extras have some of the most elaborate Regency daywear in the film.
Compare with this fashion plate from 1810.
Mary’s half-sister Claire (Bel Powley) joins Mary & Percy, & her outfits have more print, color, & variety in necklines & sleeves than Mary’s, as if to show Claire’s flighty, somewhat vain nature.
At a dinner party, Claire sings while wearing a very elegant dark patterned gown.
Mary’s pregnancy fashion isn’t much different than anything else she wears.
This is an AMAZING outfit on Claire, but it’s shown super-briefly! The sleeves have a double-dagged cap with contrast piping, & the whole ensemble is in a blue-grey with a mulberry tone.
In the same scene, Mary gets this wonky outfit with little reference to Regency fashion. What’s up with the threaded ribbon at the neck of that blouse? And the marled crossover sweater is awfully modern.
I like how Mary’s theater-going gown is reminiscent of this 1810 Costume Parisien fashion plate, with the low bodice, puff sleeves, and neck ruffles.
I appreciated this scene showing Claire getting dressed & tying her garters. However, those stockings are too sheer to be historically accurate for the period.
Again, “E” for effort in showing Claire grabbing her spencer jacket & gloves as she runs out to meet Lord Byron. But on the edge of that jacket, next to the row of eye closures, I think I spy a snap closure too. *sigh*
It’s a good look, once it’s all put together though!
The big meeting with Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) at Lake Geneva). Good hats on the ladies, with the same floppy pelisse coats.
This buttoned-up outfit makes Mary look so prim compared to the wild poets in Geneva.
In Geneva, Byron and Mary discuss the painting “The Nightmare” by John Henry Fuseli. Mary says she’s familiar with it because the painter was her mother’s first love.
It’s true that Mary Wollstonecraft had a relationship with the married artist Fuseli, and he ended it abruptly. No idea if the actual painting (shown here) was in Byron’s Swiss villa, but etchings were commonly available at the time.
Mary & Dr. Poldori have a meaningful conversation in Geneva; this is one of the better portrayals of Poldori, he’s shown with more depth & with details that would be appropriate as a medical doctor of the period.
Gorgeous dresses! Very much in the classic Regency little white dress vein, but with unique details. Mary gets a touch of green print on her overgown (symbolic of fertility, perhaps), while Claire gets metallic trim & spangles (because she’s trying to grab everyone’s attention, especially Byron’s).
It’s hard to tell if they’re wearing Regency stays, but according to Elle Fanning, they did. She told Elle Canada:
“Bel [Powley, who plays Claire] and I had revolt towards the end. We were like, “We are not wearing corsets! We can’t anymore!” But we did wear the corsets everyday. … It didn’t seem period-accurate if you didn’t have your corset on because you move so differently.”
Mary wears that weird orange blouse again, but at least she gets a new hat. Dunno about the ponytail though.
Finally, a pelisse with some weight to it! But she doesn’t wear this until the very end of the film.
As this 1810 fashion plate from Ackerman’s Repository shows, the buttons would have evoked a military look.
And even though bonnets are the most common headgear of the period, Mary doesn’t wear one until almost the last frame of the movie.
Have you seen Mary Shelley? Will you check it out?