The story is almost as famous as the book itself: on a stormy mid-June night 202 years ago, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Dr. John Polidori are gathered within the Villa Diodati, and decide to pass the time by engaging in a ghost story competition. This proposed writing contest, and a subsequent nightmare suffered by Mary, spark the creation of Frankenstein, the now-classic novel concerning a Promethean transgressor and a pitiable creature driven to vengeance.
Just as Frankenstein itself has grown into a pop-culture phenomenon, with countless iterations in various mediums, the novel’s origin story has inspired a host of literary and cinematic efforts. Writers such as Brian W. Aldiss (Frankenstein Unbound), Tim Powers (The Stress of Her Regard), and Chuck Palahniuk (Haunted) have hearkened back to the Villa Diodati, as have films such as The Bride of Frankenstein, Gothic, and Haunted Summer. The most recent entry to this list is the 2018 biopic Mary Shelley, featuring an outstanding Elle Fanning in the title role.
Mary Shelley proceeds nearly two-thirds of the way through its run time before arriving at the seminal scene, which is presented in restrained fashion (yes, there are plenty of flickering candles, and thundercracks without, and Fuseli’s The Nightmare looms over one room, but matters don’t get anywhere near as Gothic as in Ken Russell’s Gothic). This is not to say that the events at the Villa are underplayed; what the film does so well is to take the time to establish the import of everything leading up this particular scene. Not simply the product of a single rainy night, Frankenstein is shown here as developing from the author’s lifelong experiences of loss, death, and betrayal. Marked by feelings of “desperate loneliness” and abandonment (mostly stemming from her relationship with Percy Shelley), Mary clearly identifies with the creature that takes shape on the pages of her manuscript.
Overall, this is a finely realized period drama, filled with impressive performances. The film allows its feminist themes to unfold in a natural, non-preachy fashion that makes the narrative all the more moving. Wonderfully entertaining, Mary Shelley is well worth checking out, on this historic night or any other.