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Film review: Whitney and Mary Shelley

06 July 2018

Stephen Brown sees a singer’s life probed

Whitney Houston: a still from the film

Whitney Houston: a still from the film

WHITNEY (Cert. 15) is at least the third film since the singer’s accidental death in 2012. This documentary is directed by Kevin Macdonald. It opens with her saying “There were times when I would look up to God and I’d go ‘Why is this happening to me?’” Her final words were about getting things right because “I’ve got to see Jesus.”

The whole film is thus placed in the context of a spiritual conversation. It isn’t God that destroyed her: it was, as her mother kept telling her, the devil trying to get her. But what kind of diabolical force was pursuing her? In contrast with Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me (Arts, 16 June 2017), this film doesn’t have her asserting that the greatest demon was herself. Rather, it assembles evidence that her life was never that hunky-dory.

Family and friends say contrary things. Her childhood was idyllic, but there are stories of peers’ bullying Whitney; hence her removal to a Roman Catholic private school, despite a Baptist upbringing. Sundays consisted of gospel singing all day. Yet she and her mother frequently rowed over it. Family life was supposedly exemplary, but Cissy’s affair with the church’s minister led to divorce.

John, the husband, took increasing control of Whitney’s finances, only to break her trust by stealing from her. A relative, Dee Dee Warwick (sister of Dionne), sexually abused her. Brothers who introduced her to drugs on her 16th birthday set up a lifelong addiction. Little wonder, then, that, as soon as she was 18, Whitney moved in with her friend Robyn Crawford.

The belief relentlessly instilled into Whitney by her parents that she had a God-given singing talent struggled to maintain ascendancy. There is a strong feeling that she needed to please. One witness describes her as Whitney on stage but still Nippy (her childhood nickname) the rest of the time.

Macdonald allows songs and hymns to tell much of the story. The singer herself makes no division between sacred and secular music.I Will Always Love You” is as much addressed to God as “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”. It’s soul music either way. We are left feeling sad she didn’t succeed in loving herself in the way advocated in “Greatest Love of All”.

On current release

MARY SHELLEY (Cert. 12A), a film released to coincide with the bicentenary of Frankenstein, majors not on the book, but on women abused, abandoned, and generally subjugated by men.

Haifaa Al-Mansour, the director, the first female one in Saudi Arabia, made Wadjda (Arts, 19 July 2013), concerning a girl flouting convention by riding a bicycle. This time, Elle Fanning, occasionally lapsing into her American accent, plays the rebellious teenage daughter of the deceased proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

Stephen Dillane (Lord Halifax in Darkest Hour, Arts 12 January) is Mary’s radical father; William Godwin is her father. Given his deeply sympathetic performance, we wouldn’t be surprised us to learn — though we don’t — that he had been a Dissenting minister, never entirely shaking off religious beliefs. His perfectibility theory is shared by the poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), whom Godwin apprentices.

It is not something that Mary can assent to. When Percy suggests Frankenstein’s creature be an angel, capable of hope and affection, Mary, influenced (though never stated) by Milton’s Paradise Lost, is more pessimistic. “Look at the mess we have made,” she declares.

Initially head over heels in love with Percy, she appears to accede to his atheistic, revolutionary attitudes. There is a scene where they swig communion wine in an unattended St Pancras Old Church. He lounges on the altar amid a blaze of candles (in 1814? I don’t think so!) and pontificates about religion’s part in a despotic system designed to crush the human spirit. Percy is still married to Harriet while conducting this liaison, outraging Godwin at such flouting of respectability.

The couple elope, along with her stepsister Claire (Bel Powley). Mixed fortunes follow them. For Mary, faced with Percy’s increasingly bad behaviour — licentiousness masquerading as freedom — the gilt starts peeling off the gingerbread. Time with Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) in Switzerland exacerbates this, but it is here where, famously, the writing of Frankenstein begins. Patriarchy and chauvinism go hand in hand. Byron condescendingly acknowledges Mary’s intellect, but, like Percy, he admits that she exceeds what he thought women capable of.

We hear from Mary’s novel the unloved creature’s lament “Men appear to me as monsters.” Percy and Byron certainly fit that description. Godwin at a literary gathering suggests that, if only Frankenstein could have bestowed on his creature some touch of affection, how different a world it would be. Kindness, it is implied, is a necessary prerequisite for the utopian society that he envisaged.

Such philosophising surfaces only intermittently. The main thrust of the movie works more like a Sunday-night TV serialisation of a 19th-century novel, though not always as well. In the BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice adaptation, Julia Sawalha’s Lydia Bennet runs off with her man (Wickham) a great deal more convincingly than Fanning does here. Something of Mary’s serious-mindedness is also lacking from her portrayal.

On the other hand, Haifaa Al-Mansour brings us a bang-up-to-date understanding of how loss, death, and betrayal affect women. Mary projects all these feelings on to Frankenstein’s creature. The finger is clearly pointed at male lack of responsibility, one that stems from thinking that we can replace God.

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