"I was brought into this world to be abandoned," notes Mary Shelley deep into the flimsy but amusing film that bears her name. The line resonates, of course, and not just because this Mary Shelley, like the real one, lives a life of perpetual bereavement. Haifaa al-Mansour's Mary Shelley certainly alerts us to the prominence of death in the Frankenstein author's existence: Family members and eventually her own children die; we meet her at her mother's grave; she's enraptured by a display of science-entertainment in which the legs of a dead frog get electro-jolted into twitching. But Mary Shelley marshals its evidence without revealing more, without connecting to the soul of the matter. Its Mary Shelley may walk and talk, kiss and rage, but she has no more of the true spark of life than that specimen in that lab.
That's not necessarily the fault of the performers or the geniuses they're impersonating. Elle Fanning suggests a quietly thoughtful Shelley, a woman whose life might prove scandalous only because she refuses to deny herself what she loves. She takes up with Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth) to live in unmarried poverty -- how shocked she is to discover that he sees nothing wrong with them each taking lovers. Then comes a greatest hits revue of English lit: Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) swans through, our hero and her lover join him in Lake Geneva, and the writers elect to participate in a contest. Who can pen the finest ghost story?
That scenario has inspired a host of films and fictions. I can't quite say that Mary Shelley is one of these, because nothing about it is inspired, save some of Sturridge's Byronic mood swings.