Mary Shelley, backed with National Lottery funding via the BFI Film Fund, is in cinemas from 6 July 2018
With her 2012 debut Wadjda, Haifaa al-Mansour achieved two milestones: she became both the first female Saudi filmmaker to direct a feature-length film and also the director of the first feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia.
Fittingly, her follow-up feature and English language debut, Mary Shelley, sees her tackle the story of a woman who was also a groundbreaking artist in her time. Led by Elle Fanning in the title role, the film follows the love affair between poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth) and the teenage Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, which resulted in the latter writing Frankenstein.
“Shelley didn’t try to copy anyone,” says al-Mansour. “Jane Austen was the amazing star writer of the time, who wrote about love and jealousy and everything in the domestic sphere. And [Shelley] challenged that. She went and wrote something not like anything else. When I read the script and saw how much she suffered to have her voice heard and how she tried to break away from all the constraints of societal pressure at the time, I really sympathised with the character.”
Watch the Mary Shelley trailer
Although living centuries apart, it’s obvious why the director might have felt a kinship with an author working against such a background of scrutiny and prejudice. “I think if I hadn’t seen that, I wouldn’t have been able to bring anything to the character,” she continues. “I needed a vehicle to unlock the script and find a sense of ownership to it.
“An understanding of her struggle was the way for me to be able to tell an honest portrayal of her life, or at least something I could feel as true. For me, that was very important because I also consider myself a character director. I focus on bringing them to life, and dealing with actors is the thing that I enjoy the most.”
Al-Mansour tells us she’s been following Fanning’s career since Super 8 (2011) – “since she was a kid.” She says: “I feel she has this elegance in her performances – a subtleness that can elevate the role. Also, I saw her in Ginger & Rosa (2012), which is a really beautiful British film, and I thought she’d be the perfect person to embody the character.”
Mary Shelley isn’t the first film to address the inception of Frankenstein. Ken Russell has previously tackled its creation myth in his horror-tinged oddity Gothic (1986). But al-Mansour feels her film is a much needed corrective to how Shelley is usually overshadowed by her creation.
“Mary Shelley’s not about the monster, but it’s about the themes of the book because it’s totally driven by her life as a woman: she lost a child and she was surrounded by death; she carried the weight of her mother’s death and was obsessed with bringing life and questioning all that. And that is where the book was born. For me, it was more important to show her ownership of the book than having the book overshadow her again.”
So what was it like to go from covertly making a feature in a country that doesn’t make filmmaking easy to directing a starry period biopic in the UK? “For one thing, I didn’t have to [hide] in a van like in Saudi Arabia,” al-Mansour says. “I was really grateful, for the moment, to not be worrying about censorship and only engaging with my art, but also dealing with professional actors. They elevate the scene and bring a lot of craft into it. It was wonderful to deal with that.”
According to al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s relationship to films and filmmaking has definitely “changed a lot” since her debut. Indeed, she’s scheduled to appear there as part of Mary Shelley’s press tour. “When I made Wadjda, filming was illegal and there weren’t cinemas. The country was segregated. But now they’re opening cinemas in the region and women are allowed to drive, so the world is totally different.”
“I’ll go there to film again in September and October,” she continues. “I’m really excited about going back. My film is about a young woman, a doctor who decides to run for elections. It’s encouraging women to take part in politics, and I presented it to the Saudi Film Fund and they actually accepted it and endorsed it. I was pleasantly surprised.
“I think the country is going in the right direction. It’s very important for a place like Saudi Arabia to open up and celebrate music and film and art. Hopefully that will educate a lot of the [holders of] conservative and radical and militant ideas. Hopefully we’ll see more tolerance coming from that region.”