The most potent image in A NIGHTMARE WAKES, a film that is rife with them, is the juxtaposition of blood and ink as Mary Shelley (Alix Wilton Regan) struggles to produce her novel, Frankenstein or A New Prometheus, putatively the beginning of the science fiction genre (pace fans of Cyrano de Bergerac’s A Trip to the Moon). She spilled both in the process.
Much has been speculated in print and on screen about that fateful, stormy night in 1816 when Mary, future husband Percy Shelley (Giullian Yao Gioiello), Lord Byron (Phillippe Bowgen), and Byron’s friend and physician, John Polidori (Lee Garrett), first hit upon the idea of each creating a ghost story that would chill the blood of the others. It would take Mary years to turn her story about a scientist who reanimates bits and pieces of pilfered corpses to life into the novel we know today. Using the lens of Mary’s inner eye, writer/director Nora Unkel essays the tandem bio-pic of both Mary and of her novel. By telescoping time and using the logic of a fever dream that fuses imagination with reality, Unkel has created a savage tone poem that is mesmerizing. Imagination eventually becomes the only meaningful touchstone as Mary bears and loses children, and comes to the realization that the life of freedom she envisioned as Shelley’s mistress is its own unique sort of prison in a time when women were chattel.
Unkel steeps the story in the unbridled passions of its characters, from the dissolute hedonism of Byron, to the torrid and tender romance between Mary and Percy. The seeds of trouble in that latter are hinted at when Percy makes an offhand remark about his inability to feel things as powerfully as she does. Is it admiration or is it a soupcon of jealousy? As Mary’s drive to complete her novel consumes, the advice from the others, including sister Claire (Claire Glassford), who is nursing the broken heart Byron gave her when he tired of her, is to cease writing in order to preserve her sanity. It convinces Mary that it’s not her well-being that they have in mind. Percy is jealous of her talent, Polidori can’t conceive of the female mind being capable of intellectual pursuits, and Clare wants Percy for herself. When she refuses to stop, the psychic toll it takes on her causes a break with reality, and the beginnings of her legacy.
The struggle for a woman to be heard is as fierce then as it is now, even with #MeToo. The conflict between the culturally expected role and the life of a writer for which Mary hungers is underscored by Unkel’s visceral imagery, as the blood of Mary’s miscarriage turns from red to black, staining her hands, each with a different color. Throughout, Unkel uses cinematography that has a dream-like quality, making the moment, for example, when Mary sits down to write for the first time in earnest a dizzy euphoria as the camera traces giddy circles around Regan as the soundtrack catches the fury of creation.
Regan is unbridled in a performance that is fierce and uncompromising. Even as Mary skirts madness by defying the conventions of her most unconventional companions, Regan is fully in charge, dancing on the edge with consummate skill, maintaining Mary’s resolution. Gioiello is the soul of romance and selfishness rolled into an irresistible whole with an adolescent’s inability to comprehend the maturity into which Mary is evolving.
The title, A NIGHTMARE WAKES, has that nice multi-layered meaning that fits nicely with what it purveys. This is an oneiric exercise in capturing the truth of a woman and a book that succeeds where traditional narrative could not. Let yourself be seduced.