Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Rowing With the Wind' (1988)

The idea of combining the story of Frankenstein with the story of Mary Shelley's composition of it goes all the way back to the opening sequence of James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, and for some reason the circumstances surrounding Shelley's writing of the novel proved to be very popular with filmmakers for a two-year stretch in the 1980s. Rowing With the Wind is one of three movies released between 1986 and 1988 that deals with the summer in 1816 that Shelley (then Mary Godwin), her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont, poet Lord Byron and Byron's physician John William Polidori spent together in Geneva, Switzerland, when Byron challenged the group to each come up with an original horror story, and Mary began writing Frankenstein. I've seen one other, Ken Russell's Gothic, which turns the vacation into a drug-fueled, surrealist nightmare, and contains almost no references to Frankenstein. Another, Haunted Summer, proved a bit too difficult to track down.

Rowing With the Wind goes further than just depicting the group's literary and romantic entanglements, though; writer-director Gonzalo Suarez imagines Frankenstein's monster as a literary creation come to life, a force that haunts Mary for years after she first dreams him up. The movie opens with a version of the novel's opening, although Mary (Lizzy McInnerny) is now the one exploring the arctic on a ship. It's not quite clear what this setup (which returns at the end) is meant to represent, but it immediately establishes the connection between Mary's life and the character she created. The first half of the movie focuses on the summer in Geneva, establishing the tumultuous relationships among Mary, Shelley (Valentine Pelka), Claire (Elizabeth Hurley) and Byron (Hugh Grant), with Polidori (Jose Luis Gomez) as a kind of hanger-on.

Suarez's script keeps things fairly light at first, as the four main characters frolic around Lake Geneva, swoon over their literary pretensions and have plenty of sex. McInnerny makes for a dour, unpleasant Mary, and Pelka overdoes it a bit as Shelley, but Grant and Hurley bring some much-needed charm to Byron (who comes off like a typical Grant cad) and Claire. (This movie is actually where Grant and Hurley first met and began their romantic relationship.) The movie takes a turn once Mary conceives of Frankenstein, and the monster (played by Jose Carlos Rivas) starts skulking in the background. Suarez makes a mostly unconvincing connection between the creation of the monster and the deaths of various people in Mary's life, starting with Polidori's suicide by hanging at the villa in Geneva.

Never mind that Polidori actually died five years later, in what was only suspected to be a suicide. Suarez turns Mary's life into a literal horror show, tweaking the tragedies that surrounded her so that they follow a pattern of doom caused by the monster. Halfway through, the movie shifts to several years later, following the main characters as they face even more sorrow. Mary blames the monster for the suicides of her half-sister Fanny and Shelley's first wife (both of which occur offscreen), and the movie explicitly shows the monster causing the death by drowning of Mary and Shelley's young son William (who actually died of malaria). The monster speaks in a weird robotic monotone and has scars on his face, but otherwise looks like a fellow upper-crust intellectual.

Making him the agent of everything bad in Mary's life turns her into a sort of passive whiner, in a way undermining the feminist values she fought for and dismissing her artistic talents. It's also not a particularly illuminating way to tell the story of the lives of these important literary figures, and Suarez's script is alternately florid and bland. The ending rushes through Shelley's death and then returns to the arctic for one more cryptic pronouncement from the monster, which sheds no light on his presence in (and retreat from) Mary's life. Tying the true story and the novel together is an idea with a lot of potential, but this movie never quite understands how to accomplish it.

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