A Nightmare Wakes

Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, watches her life turn into a waking nightmare as the lines between fiction and reality are blurred.

A Nightmare Wakes is the feature film debut of writer and director Nora Unkel. Unkel took a unique approach with this film, combining historical fiction with elements from Shelley’s book. The audience is introduced to Mary Shelley when she is still Percy Shelley’s mistress and pregnant with his child. After losing the child, she begins writing Frankenstein. One of the more fascinating elements of how Unkel crafted this story is the way she conveys Shelley’s relationship with her writing; Shelley quickly develops a physical, emotional, and intimate connection with the character she is crafting. It was a compelling way to show how important and consuming a work of fiction can be for the writer.

When it comes to the historical fiction aspect of A Nightmare Wakes, there are some issues. To preface this, I’m no Mary Shelley expert. I know some basic highlights of her life, but generally her life is a mystery to me. It’s also important to remember that historical fiction often emphasizes the fictional aspect of that subgenre. Be that as it may, the way Shelley is depicted doesn’t seem to be authentic to what we know about her. Throughout the film the audience watches as she loses all sense of reality, alienating herself from her loved ones. This approach ultimately makes her come across as the villain of her own story. On top of that, there are some scenes that are either unnecessary or even take away from the rest of the film. There is one specific scene many viewers may find triggering in the way a sexual assault is filmed. All in all, while I appreciate many of the inventive aspects of the plot and know many viewers will enjoy this fresh take on Shelley’s life, I didn’t enjoy this direction of the film.

Alix Wilton Regan (The Wife, The Brave) plays Mary Shelley. Regan does a lovely job with the material she’s given and especially excels at conveying the more unstable side of Shelley. Giullian Yao Gioiello (Scream: The TV Series, Iron Fist) plays both Percy Shelley and Victor Frankenstein. His performance stands out in how well he plays two very different characters. While their clothes make it easy to tell the difference between the two, Gioielle’s body language alone changes so drastically you can tell which character he is at any given moment. When it comes to the rest of the cast, it is harder to critique. Watching the film, I didn’t feel a connection to any of the other characters and didn’t feel they were fully developed. As a result, the performances come across as a bit lackluster through no fault of the actors.

A Nightmare Wakes uniquely melds historical fiction and literary adaptation into one film, but it loses Mary Shelley’s spirit in the process. There is clear innovation here in Unkel’s feature-film debut, and I would remain interested to see what she does in the future. When it comes down to it, I just don’t think this story did justice to the legendary person that is Mary Shelley. This film explored too many ideas, making a 90 minute film feel more like 150 minutes. While the film might not not live up to Shelley’s name, I can imagine many viewers being completely entranced by this inventive take on the life and writing and Shelley.


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