Director: Nora Unkel
Writer: Nora Unkel
Producer: Robert Menzies, Devin Shepherd, Gabriel Rosenstein, Frederic Fiore, Eric Tavitian
Stars: Alix Wilton Regan, Giullian Gioiello, Claire Glassford, Philippe Bowgen
Nightmares, visions, and real-life tragedies compel author Mary Shelley to create her gothic masterpiece ¡°Frankenstein.¡±
The 2017 Elle Fanning vehicle ¡°Mary Shelley¡± (review here) was so negligible, I struggled just now to recall the biopic¡¯s title, even though it¡¯s simply the name of its subject. Reading through the review I wrote three years ago, my mind doesn¡¯t feel any more refreshed on that forgettable film. This assures me I made the correct call in assigning two and a half stars out of five, a shoulder shrugging score indicative of mediocrity. It also assures that 2020¡¯s ¡°A Nightmare Wakes,¡± which similarly endeavors to explore the creation of ¡°Frankenstein¡± through the lens of Mary and Percy Shelley¡¯s teeter-totter romance, starts from an advantageous position for making an impression. It couldn¡¯t elicit a reaction worse than no reaction at all, right?
Joining the infamous ranks of ¡°those two Christopher Columbus movies¡± and 1998¡¯s dueling ¡°space rock¡± flicks, ¡°A Nightmare Wakes¡± contends with ¡°Mary Shelley¡± for the crown of definitive dramatization about crafting gothic literature¡¯s greatest novel. Compared to its predecessor, ¡°A Nightmare Wakes¡± is the more economical production. Both are costume dramas of a sort, but ¡°A Nightmare Wakes¡± features fewer actors, simpler sets, and a Spartan indie aesthetic. In keeping with ¡®90s cinema references, ¡°A Nightmare Wakes¡± is essentially a horror-tinged arthouse biopic by way of Merchant-Ivory on a budget.
Tighter purse strings don¡¯t prevent ¡°A Nightmare Wakes¡± from trafficking in the expected stylings of an English countryside period piece. As mentioned, the film gets framed by the alternately torrid and tumultuous love affair between poet Percy Shelley and mutual muse Mary, who graduates from mistress to second wife over the course of their complicated relationship. Soapy substance entitles ¡°A Nightmare Wakes¡± to typical moments like running into each other¡¯s arms while laughing, delicately kissing the nape of a neck while that person reads poetry, and other evidences of the brand of passion your mom reads about in paperbacks with chancery-font title text and lavishly painted covers of muscular men in open-chest shirts.
With her younger sister Claire in tow, Mary and Percy arrive at Lord Byron¡¯s grand estate for a getaway. As with every other onscreen incarnation of the man, Byron is of course portrayed as a ribald scamp, fated to forever be an arrogantly addicted philanderer. John Polidori joins the group too. Aside from briefly attending to Mary when she becomes pregnant a second time however, you¡¯re unlikely to notice the good doctor. No one else seems to. Side arcs such as his, as well as Claire¡¯s fling with Byron, never receive enough water to bloom past the seed stage.
In this country manor decorated with copious candelabras, where harp-laden music complements the high society mood, Byron proposes a ghost story competition to alleviate his ennui. Inspired by recurring nightmares, visions of bleeding black blood, and a sudden miscarriage, Mary begins writing ¡°Frankenstein.¡± As her bond with Percy develops fractures due to his first wife¡¯s suicide, possible affairs, and perceived jealousy, Mary¡¯s immersion in her fictional world grows equally worrisome. Characters from her book are now taking the place of people she sees in real life. And Mary¡¯s declining mental state reflects a deepening obsession with the darkness of her dreams.
Horror only infrequently enters the movie through dreamy scenes of Mary¡¯s haunting hallucinations. For the vast majority of its minutes, ¡°A Nightmare Wakes¡± remains a straightforward portrait of an intangibly tortured woman wrestling to funnel her fears into creativity. This particular iteration of Mary Shelley isn¡¯t overly flattering, nor is she particularly fascinating. Part of the problem is that Alix Wilton Regan isn¡¯t the most magnetic actress. Her absence of energy saps the limited appeal of Mary¡¯s personality. The other part of the problem is that director Nora Unkel¡¯s script doesn¡¯t make Mary too sympathetic. It¡¯s difficult to feel sorry for a jilted mistress whose lover is ¡°cheating¡± on her with his wife, who then goes on to kill herself over the triangle.
¡°A Nightmare Wakes¡± really flattens out down a steam-losing home stretch where the film focuses almost exclusively on the push-pull nature of Mary¡¯s marriage to Percy. One minute Mary worries Percy may be sleeping in other beds. The next minute Mary worries about losing Percy for good. She may be anxious to have another child with the man. Or she may wish him banished from their cottage along with her suspicious sister. It¡¯s a lot to keep up with, or care about, when Mary¡¯s slippery grip on sanity throughout the course of composing ¡°Frankenstein¡± offers marginally more thrills, even though those too are in extremely short supply.
With its narrow scope getting wound up in redundant drama cycles, ¡°A Nightmare Wakes¡± didn¡¯t broaden my perspective on this period in Mary Shelley¡¯s life. I can¡¯t say the creative liberties taken with the truth shed any insightful light on ¡°Frankenstein¡¯s¡± genesis either. Yet I¡¯m scoring the film with 55/100 to put it a tick above ¡°Mary Shelley¡± because there¡¯s a better chance I¡¯ll at least remember this movie in the future. Not for powerfully connecting the bat to the ball, but for taking strong swings like a Big Leaguer, even though it¡¯s more of a Minor League movie.
Review Score: 55