(AMC+/DirecTV/Shudder/VOD) This is the second in a three-part series of recommendations regarding films about Mary Shelley. Unlike MARY SHELLEY, A NIGHTMARE WAKES is far more about Mary writing FRANKENSTEIN, often through surreal vignettes, although first-time feature writer/director Nora Unkel also focuses on Mary’s tragic pregnancies and miscarriages. Unsurprisingly, the act of writing FRANKENSTEIN is rather bluntly portrayed in a way that may feel obvious, but works within the context of the film.

I was lukewarm about this take on Mary Shelley when I first watched it. It seemed rather reductive, and the plotting and visuals — especially the color timing — felt heavy-handed. However, after watching MARY SHELLEY, I saw them as two sides of the same coin. Each film neglects certain facets of her life, while highlighting what each filmmaker wanted to extoll and/or examine. Mary Shelley is a fascinating figure in that you can piece together her life in a myriad of ways; one can practically stitch together any narrative you want from her life. Consequently, it is far more telling about the writer/director than about Mary Shelley herself, and often about using the back-story of a person as a springboard for further social and cultural scrutiny.

I feel the ‘biopic’ label is one that viewers ascribe to films when they know it’s based on someone’s life, regardless of whether the film or work is intended as such; viewers often expect it to hew as close to reality and historic facts as possible. That’s not necessarily the case. I can understand some folks feeling ‘betrayed’ when the persona presented doesn’t align, and there are definitely moral quandaries that come with misrepresenting one’s life to tell your own tale.* However: these auteurs are adapting pre-existing works, except that the pre-existing work is someone’s life story.

I’d love to write more about similar extrapolations regarding recreating people’s lives and events (for another recent example, see: ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI… — no one knows exactly what went down when Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown met that night), whether this sort of personal pseudo-non-fiction is fan-fiction, the history of this sort of narrative handling, and how folks react differently to fictional portrayals of real people depending on the medium, but instead I’ll post a link to the A NIGHTMARE WAKES trailer:

“I feel like it’s a story. My story.”

  • I am not a Mary Shelley scholar — I only know the basics of her life — so I can’t speak as to whether MARY SHELLEY or A NIGHTMARE WAKES betrayed her. I’ll note that I did previously recommend SHIRLEY, which I initially believed to willfully misrepresent Shirley Jackson’s life to tell another’s tale. However, I believe I was guilty of assuming the film would play by traditional biopic rules, and not be its own work, and later on ‘rediscovered’ the film regarding its intent.


(AMC+/VOD)? This is the first in a three-part series of recommendations regarding films about Mary Shelley.

At this point, I’ve seen more films about Mary Shelley than I’ve seen FRANKENSTEIN adaptations. That makes sense though, as Mary Shelley is endlessly fascinating. This take on her life is from Haifaa Al-Mansour (WADJDA, and the previously recommended THE PERFECT CANDIDATE) and starts off surprisingly early in Mary’s life, before she meets Percy, immediately giving Mary her own autonomy.

I’m sure many have their image of what they expect for someone portraying Mary Shelley, but I don’t, and I have no qualms with Elle Fanning’s portrayal. It’s sharp, and Fanning exudes a haunted quality, and how she darts her eyes in specific scenes plays rather effectively.

Al-Mansour rightfully leans on how much of a dick Percy (Douglas Booth) is — especially concerning his constant bullying about having an open relationship — but she also casts Mary’s stepsister Claire (Bel Powley) in a rather unglamorous light, portraying her as a foolish girl who latches onto Mary and simply won’t let go until she latches onto Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge). In short, this is less a piece about Mary Shelley writing FRANKENSTEIN and more about Mary herself, and it’s a welcome relief.

While the majority of the film is finely executed, the end narratively dodges quite a bit in order to squarely land something resembling an uplifting ending. While it doesn’t feel entirely disingenuous, it does feel far too neat.

“There is always another way. And when we make such choices, there are inevitably consequences.”


(fubo/Hulu/kanopy/Netflix/tubi/VOD/Vudu)? No, not John Carpenter’s adaptation of Stephen King’s CHRISTINE — a fine horror film, but you hardly need me to tell you that — this is a dramatized depiction of Christine Chubbuck, a local TV news reporter in the 70s who struggled with depression. The film details her personal and professional troubles as she tries to grow her career and realize the life she wants.

There are other facets of Christine’s story that you may or may not be familiar with. I’m not completely sure whether detailing them would improve a viewing, so I’m going to err on the side of caution and intentionally bite my tongue.

If this were a fictional film, I’d feel a lot better about it, and it wouldn’t have the ending it has. Every thing leading up to that is a smart, nuanced portrayal of a complicated woman, bolstered by Rebecca Hall’s amazing performance. It’s fantastically cast film — Michael C. Hall as Christine’s fellow news man, Tracy Letts as her boss, Maria Dizzia as her co-worker, J. Smith-Cameron (from the previously recommended RECTIFY) as her mother, and VEEP’s Timothy Simons as the weatherman — but this film wouldn’t work without Rebecca Hall’s nuanced handling of Christine. She’s a persona we rarely see on-screen: a smart-but-flailing woman, clearly awkward in general, but so goddamn determined to succeed, and to hide from and survive her mental issues.

Again, if it were fictional, it’d be a triumph. While it’s still a stunningly scripted movie, it just feels… dirty. But that’s a matter for tomorrow.

“Yes, but—”

TESLA (2020)

(Hulu/VOD) Was the world asking for another biopic about Nicolas Tesla? No, at least I wasn’t until I heard this one was helmed by cult filmmaker Michael Almereyda (NADJA, THE ETERNAL).

Michael Almereyda’s has recruited his regulars to bring TELSA to life: Ethan Hawke is Tesla, Kyle MacLaughlin is Edison, Jim Gaffigan is Westinghouse, and there are several other established, white, male actors. Eve Hewson (THE KNICK) is J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne, who serves as the narrator in-and-out-of-time, trying to convince the viewer how Tesla’s current ranking in the cultural consciousness is unforgivably woeful (which goes against everything I know).

While it often looks and feels like an early naughts PBS docudrama, where the re-enactors often break the fourth wall to educate the viewers through a hazy digital video lens, Almereyda ladles out numerous idiosyncrasies to try to keep the audience off-kilter, such as roller skating scenes; anachronistic ice cream cones; obvious rear-projection with intentionally misplaced lighting setups; fictional interactions where Hewson’s character then informs the viewers that the scene ‘likely didn’t happen this way’; even a full-blown musical number.

Those bits of whimsy keep the film breezily entertaining. I know if my hungover high school science teacher screened it for class one day, I’d feel like a lucky boy (although I’d expect the teacher to make the requisite number of caveats that this biopic has ‘fictional elements for dramatic effect’). Despite the (presumably intentional) cheap sheen of the biopic, the blocking and camerawork is top-notch, and no one phones in a performance. I’m especially fond of Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s (GIRLS, BLOW THE MAN DOWN) loose turn as Tesla’s right-hand man.

That said, in the age of modern re-enactments like BIZEBEE ’17 and CASTING JONBENET, it feels like TESLA isn’t formally daring enough, doesn’t push itself far enough, which is a shame as Almereyda is known for grounded weirdness. However, this film is based on his first screenplay, which may account for why the tomfoolery feels quaint, as opposed to a grand remark on the unreliable nature of recreating history. Given the times we’re currently living in, perhaps a safely odd, comfortably unreliable biopic is what you need right now.

By the way, if you’re looking for some more fact/fiction-blended Tesla works, I highly recommend Samantha Hunt’s novel THE INVENTION OF EVERYTHING ELSE.