In 1816, when Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Doctor Polidori and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin were knocking about on the shores of Lake Geneva during one of the most unseasonably rainy summers on record, Byron suggested a novel antidote to their boredom. As storm clouds gathered in the high Alps, he challenged his guests to a writing contest: whoever wrote the scariest ghost story would win. He and Shelley were too debauched and lazy to even attempt anything, but the two others earnestly took up the challenge.
Polidori wrote The Vampyr, a stylish tale of bloodsucking which hugely influenced Bram Stoker and played a large hand in creating the Dracula industry. And Mary, a shy 18-year-old, began sketching out the chilling saga of a reanimated monster and his arrogant creator, Dr Frankenstein.
When Frankenstein was published, no one believed a woman could have written something so dark and accomplished, and mistakenly attributed its authorship to her lover, Shelley. That error would eventually be corrected, but Haifaa-al-Mansour’s worthy but humourless biopic starts a few years before Mary’s eureka moment, when she’s chafing under the quixotic rule of her cruel stepmother in her father’s London bookshop.
Mary (Elle Fanning) is an impassioned bookworm, and yearns for excitement and romance. After her kindly father (Stephen Dillane) sends her to stay with cultured friends in Scotland, she makes the acquaintance of Shelley (Douglas Booth), a dashing romantic poet whose reputation is on the rise. When Mary returns to London, Shelley follows her, and they elope. This would have been scandal enough in 1814, but Shelley is married and has a child, and Mary compounds the scandal by taking her giddy stepsister Claire (Bel Powley) with her.
While it’s not unreasonable to find suffragette refrains in the subtext of Frankenstein, we are rather beaten over the head with it late on. Fanning seems stiff and miscast as the fearless Mary, and the portrayals of Shelley and Byron are frankly ridiculous. They behave like Led Zeppelin on tour: no doubt both were reprehensible narcissists, but they were also rather talented, and there’s no evidence at all of that on display in this clunky, overwritten film.
There’s little danger of The First Purge being overwritten, preferring as it does to let an almighty hail of bullets and blows do the talking instead. It’s a prequel to the other three films in The Purge franchise, in which it’s entirely legal to commit any crime for a short window of time.
The government are carrying out a ‘psychological’ experiment on low-income neighbourhoods in Staten Island. Incentivised by a $5,000 lump sum (and more if they kill), most of the island’s denizens gladly sign up to the experiment. In time, the government’s much more sinister plan is unfurled and the current political climate certainly adds richness to the plot.
Yet The First Purge befalls a pacing problem: the first half of the film builds with tension as the dawn of the experiment looms. After that, it’s a ceaseless spree of visceral, screeching violence. Jumpy and unsettling stuff – and not just because of the guns.
Elsewhere, an understated Rob Brydon sufficiently carries Swimming with Men, the story of Eric, a put-upon accountant who tackles the midlife blues by joining a men’s synchronised swimming troupe. In a trope as old as the proverbial hills, the amateurs enter an international contest, and the cliches don’t end there. Between the exasperated wife (Jane Horrocks) and apathetic son (Spike White), Eric’s woes are relatable, if boilerplate. By turns flimsy and feelgood, Swimming with Men has its sporadic moments of charm and sentiment. The Full Monty, alas, it isn’t. And with the tantalising backstories of the various team members effectively lost to the ether, one can’t help but feel it’s a missed opportunity – not just to say something of note about masculinity, but to convey the true vagaries of middle age.