A Nightmare Wakes
by Hope Madden
It’s hard not to be fascinated by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who, at 18, wrote arguably the most iconic piece of Gothic horror or science fiction—or both in one—ever to be penned.
Writer/director Nora Unkel takes us back to that rainy summer night when young Mary, her lover Percy Shelley (Guillian Yao Gioiello) and his friend Lord Byron (Philippe Bowgen, over the top) participated in a challenge to write a ghost story.
We all remember what Mary came up with, right?
Alix Wilton Regan plays the young scribe. It’s an adequate performance in a fairly lifeless film that suggests writing and madness go hand in hand but plays it safe when it comes to what really haunts Mary.
As Mary Shelley suffers through indignities at the hands of a lover she believed to be a better man than he is, she escapes through writing. Aside from one particularly difficult scene, though, Percy’s behavior is largely sanitized or quarantined to offscreen antics we can only guess at.
Wilton Regan offers a needy heroine more likely to lash out at her sister (who may or may not deserve it, Unkel never really clarifies) than to stand up for herself. The performance might have delivered an intriguing central figure—unlikeable and almost impossible to root for.
It seems like a conscious creative decision between Unkel and Wilton Regan, given some of Mary’s behaviors. Creating an unlikeable female to anchor a film is an endlessly intriguing, brave and chancy decision, but the film you hang around her has to turn her performance into something worthy of the attention. Unkel can’t manage it.
Still, Mary descends into a kind of madness and soon enough, her creation takes on a life of its own.
Unkel is not the first filmmaker to conflate the writer’s life with the writer’s product. Just a few years back, Haiffa Al-Mansour’s biopic Mary Shelley convincingly drew Frankenstein as a near autobiography. That film didn’t quite deliver on its promise, either.
In Al-Mansour’s case, hero worship led to a superficial character (played soundly by Elle Fanning) with few faults and a lot of frowning. Unkel’s version is close to the opposite, but both filmmakers set out to depict what it was Mary Shelley was really trying to say when she wrote Frankenstein.
It’s a laudable goal. The problem may just be that Mary Shelley said it so much better.