Mary Shelley ponders the literature that is “…the one nobody’s written yet, where the imagination could give life to matter making it into a living poem.” The historical drama Rowing with the Wind (1988) depicts this concept by dramatizing an influential time in the lives of three literary geniuses plus Claire Clairmont (Elizabeth Hurley). Radical political thinker turned poet Percy Bysshe Shelley is portrayed by Valentine Pelka. Mary Godwin Shelley—often proclaimed post mortem as the best woman novelist of that time—is diminished to being represented by Lizzy McInnerny. Revered as a poet but scandalized for being a bad boy, Lord Byron is depicted by Hugh Grant in a slightly watered down version that is probably due to the script instead of Grant’s choice. Writer and director Gonzalo Suarez’s movie does not quite scream “It’s alive!” The hack and slap editing is reminiscent of the jerky motion of classic depictions of the creature in Frankenstein. Another major problem is the assignment of actress to roles that do not correspond with their acting ability. Rowing with the Wind does have strong qualities such as the set design and scenery, choice of music, and a few of the acting performances. The costume design is gender biased and curiously inconsistent in garment quality and degree of historical accuracy.
Rowing with the Wind is rated R for nudity, both female and male. The female nudity is mildly gratuitous but not unexpected or disruptive to the plot. Maybe it even put one actress in her element; Lizzy McInnerny’s only half believable performance starts with her getting out of a bathtub and then wandering around towel-headed in a bathrobe. “Sexy Hugh Grant” does not even take off his shirt… despite the description on the video box that cheapens the purpose of the movie and just plain false advertises for anyone who cares.
The film begins appropriately with a voice over of Byron’s “Darkness”, a poem written during the summer in Geneva when he met the Shelleys. There is an artic scene reminiscent of the beginning of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in which she professes to be alone, waiting to meet the Creature conceived by her imagination. Mary is introduced as the narrator, retelling the story from memory: “Such strange memories: Shelley, Byron, Claire. Imagination and life are confused as waters of the same lake, our lake, where together we rowed.”
In the fabled summer of 1816 young lovers decide to run away together. Shelley and Mary, with Claire in tow, visit Lord Byron in Lake Geneva, Switzerland. John Polidori—Byron’s physician and personal secretary—is there when the threesome arrive. At Lord Byron’s suggestion there is a horror story writing contest to show that life is always more terrifying than the scariest story imagined. Mary begins writing Frankenstein; none of the contributions from the others are mentioned. Soon after there are three deaths, all ruled suicides. Mary begins to fear the monster which she has created in literature has manifested in real life. Beyond her control, born of her own inner darkness, Mary believes the monster that she has seen with her own eyes is now a harbinger of death. The story covers the Shelleys, Claire and Lord Byron’s life and travels through Europe for several years until after the death of one or more of the key participants. The above-quoted reference to rowing and the title are a hint at rather confusing embellishment at the ending which kills whatever euphoria that might have been caused by watching the movie.
There is not considerable enthusiasm due to the lack of momentum building, mostly courtesy of film editor Jose Salcedo. The editing is mutilated and crudely sewn together with some essential chunks of meat missing, not unlike the Creature in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. The United States version has been cut from 126 to 95 minutes. There is a cut and paste feeling, blaringly lacking transition between the scenes. In at least one place it is very obvious that the scene has been ripped and another one tacked on unceremoniously afterwards.
It is also very obvious that the female cast should have been reshuffled based on acting. Lizzy McInnerny should not have the lead role of Mary Shelley, period. Kate McKenzie does exceptionally well in her small role as Jane Williams. Ms. Williams makes the story come alive and creates a little bit of suspense to see more. Elizabeth Hurley is believable and energetic, but the script for her character Claire made little use of that. Even at times when she is supposed to be scared or elated in love, Lizzy McInnerny’s performance completely lacks anything but monotony, utter flatness and apathy so detestable that if on trial for criminally bad acting the jury would have no sympathy for her… like she has no heart for the role. Perhaps McInnerny’s motivation is to seem self-controlled and strong, but she is playing a 16-year-old girl at the beginning of the movie, one who is full of passion and ideas. The actress’ facial expressions, body language and even her posture do not match what she is saying. That is so odd that it distracts the reader from becoming immersed in the movie, nearly knocking the whole film down to the B movie class in itself.
Hugh Grant does well with what he is given. It is not that he received better lines than the other principals, as one might originally assume, it is that he could actually perform them. However, the script completely fails to portray his dark and moody personality well. Both Grant and Jose Luis Gomez stand out for their ability to use facial expressions and inflections in speech, making it sound realistic.
Those are tasks that Valentine Pelka does adequately at times when the character’s melodramatic suicidal gestures are not taken into consideration. Another actor could have taken the character of Percy Bysshe Shelley to higher level. Pelka also comes short of driving home philosophical and thought provoking lines meant to be key elements in understanding the atmosphere of the time.
The selling point of this movie involves the inner settings and the outer scenery, as it is filmed on location in grand beauty in Spain, Switzerland, Italy and Norway. The scenery is breathtaking and much is made of natural lighting and breathtaking landscapes. The mansions used for the interior scenes are lush with spacious rooms. For example, the ceiling is so high in Lord Byron’s Venice home that it makes a giraffe standing in it seem amazing small.
Alejandro Masso’s choice of music is as effective as it could be given the unharmonious editing. Featuring all classical music, the score includes the works of Greig, Beethoven, and Mozart. The music is enjoyable and adds to the atmosphere, partly filling in the gaps left by some of the actors and a script that isn’t very conducive to the cutting age of the time featured.
The costume design of Ivonne Blake consists of some over-the-top costumes for the character Lord Byron and some plain gowns for the ladies, mostly in drab white. Claire Clairmont does wear a pant suit once. Jane Williams wears a colored dress that at least looks tailored, unlike the boring gowns hanging off Mary and Claire in Switerzland. The eccentric costuming for Lord Byron has historical basis if Portrait of Lord Byron in Albanian Dress, a painting by Thomas Phillips, is considered. However, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s clothing is rather functional, plain and cheap looking, contrary to accounts of Shelley wearing expensive clothes even if they were wrinkled. At least an outfit of John Polidori had some detail on the sleeve.
The drastic over-editing and the casting for the lead female character Mary Shelley prohibit a rating above neutral. Tragically, this movie had potential to be much greater. This film receives a 3-star rating for the general adult public. The recommendation is significantly but not profoundly higher for those who are interested in the historical people portrayed; in that case it should be purchased in a gently used condition at a discount. If available free of charge from the library Rowing with the Wind should definitely be checked out by people seeking something slightly out of the mainstream that heaps with artsy culture.