A GOTHICALLY charged but fairly lifeless period biopic from Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Mansour (Wadjda) explores the early years of revolutionary 19th-century author Mary Shelley in the time leading up to the publication of her famous novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

The 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning) is a quietly rebellious young woman with an unusual interest in the macabre and a strong desire to start writing books. She soon meets and falls in love with dreamy-eyed, similarly rebellious and already-married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth). They run off together, much to the disapproval of her stern father William (Stephen Dillane).

Although well-acted and visually handsome, with a lilting score by Amelia Warner to carry it along, it’s also puzzlingly flat as a piece of dramatic storytelling. It has a certain run-of-the-mill period drama feel to it that somewhat squanders the potential to explore the inherent contradiction between the perceivably naive author and the monstrously tragic story she would eventually bestow upon the world.

Her words in the film’s opening title card reads: “There is something at work in my soul, which I do not understand.” But the film doesn’t really get under her skin or teach you anything substantial about who she truly was. It never really pays much attention to her obvious creative spark, articulating her literary ponderings via soft-spoken but often obtrusive voice-over narration.

It’s also hampered by the kind of clunky and heavy-handed dialogue – like “soon she will write something that will surpass all of us” – that cheapens it as a conventional biopic. The movie foregoes any real grappling with the complex themes of the novel, such as its power as a metaphor for the pain of abandonment and anxieties of pregnancy and childbirth, in favour of playing up Mary’s relationship with Percy and their travels which fed into her getting started on the writing process. The love affair of two brilliant minds throwing caution to the wind is not so much electric as a mere whimper.

It gets more interesting as it moves into the period of her actually writing the famous novel itself. It’s here where it broaches the pervasive subjugation of women in the era, even by those respected in the same field of literature (including the famous Lord Byron) and the publishers who were appalled at the mere thought of a woman writing such a grotesque tale.

But even that feels half-heartedly bolted on rather than a way to give the piece a purposeful historical force. Ultimately it ends up a dull and pedestrian affair, something its titular author most definitely was not.