“Thrilling horror… One to make the reader dread to turn around… To curdle the blood… And quicken the beatings of the heart.”
This is what is spoken during the opening credits of “Frankenstein”. A quote from Mary Shelley herself, the author of what is perhaps the most famous of novels. Never before have I considered how disturbing a tale “Frankenstein” really was until I began to read the novel recently. We are filled with images of the square headed lug’s bolted head, and this image is forever engrained, but this version of the novel brings the creature back to its roots. Kenneth Branagh stars and directs this new adaptation of one of the greatest Gothic novels to surface since the genres inception, and he does so faithfully. Much of the imagery is carried over and so are the themes and motifs, but the inconsistent narrative holds “Frankenstein” back from greatness.
In the same manner as the novel, the film begins with Captain Walton (Aidan Quinn) heading to the North Pole in a search for a new passage, this search is his obsession. Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) appears at the Pole and reveals the existence of an “abomination” to Walton and his Crew.
The concept of the story then on is that Victor is describing to Walton what has happened to him thus far that has brought him such distance from his home in Geneva. He tells him about when he was a boy and was given his Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) as a gift due to her parents unfortunate demise. They grew up together and stay incredibly close during this time. Victor’s mother (Cheri Lunghi) passes away during the birth of another son, despite the medical prowess of Victor’s father (Ian Holm). It is the horrific death of his mother that first causes Frankenstein to consider the ideas of preventing death
Victor then goes to University in Ingolstadt to learn more about the sciences that have already taken up so much of his time. Here he meets Professor Krempe (Robert Hardy) who has been convicted prior to Victor’s arrival of meddling with the standard sciences upheld by the harsh Professor Waldman (John Cleese). When Krempe decides to teach to Victor his illegal findings, Victor becomes the father of a discovery that he could never have prepared for.
The story of Frankenstein is classic through and through, and Branagh decides to direct this more faithfully than perhaps previous adaptions have, and certainly more faithfully than its dreadful successor “I, Frankenstein” did. In doing so he not only includes the character of Walton whom actually serves as the character that Victor is trying to dissuade from his expedition with his own tragically allegorical story — but he also incorporates many of the motifs and themes from the books, as well as keeping the actual creature realistic in his portrayal
Robert De Niro stars as the Creature which is fortunate because he is the most interesting character. I was amazed at the use of make-up which goes as far as to create a realistic looking monster but also incorporate small details that are greatly appreciated (he actually has his stitching heal over the course of the film). One of the best scenes is just after his creation and abandonment by Victor in which he goes out into the public and is chased and clubbed out of the city due to his grotesque appearance. At this point the Creature hadn’t said a word, and perhaps because of this I felt for him as if he was some sort of innocent child. Which conflicts with the image of De Niro’s huge build which is a part of what “Frankenstein” was always about. Bottom line is I felt sympathy for the Creature despite his lack of dialogue.
For every brilliant scene like this, the film is bogged down by many mediocre and even just plain poor ones. The creation of the creature which should be a monumental sequence but is treated with the anticipated amount of grandeur backed by a sweeping orchestral track. When it actually animates however, we are exposed to a slapstick scene which is clearly trying to be comical but it feels messy and out of place. Victor also decides he despises the creature upon creating him but unlike in the novel we aren’t really given a reason why. These narrative inconsistencies plague the film and reduce the believable quality that would have been necessary for me to care in this instance.
Even another good scene soon after the mob chase scene that involves the Creature, having hidden away in an extension of a house with a family of four, finally gets to have a conversation with a human character who isn’t repulsed. The Grandfather (Richard Briers) of the family is blind and the Creature tells him how he feels. The film makes you want to hear De Niro speak more, it makes you want the Creature to be able to finally have a decent conversation with someone because we care about him, but the scene is played to the backdrop of the family running back to the house and so a tension is created because they will inevitably despise and reject him without question, and they do.
After this the Creature flips his personality and decides to “have his revenge” on Victor. At this point I lost a degree of interest in the character but the portrayal by De Niro is great. From here on the film becomes far more generic and asks us to sympathise with so many characters as the Creature decides to slaughter Victor’s family in Geneva. In doing so, the horror that was promised in the opening narration is lost and thus there is little involvement.
It was an ambitious project for Branagh. He carries over, though rather un-subtly, the themes of pursuing knowledge, innocence, tragedy and even intelligent motifs such as electricity. At one point Victor uses a machine that literally puts electricity at his fingertips then later on a tree is obliterated by a lightning strike. This spark is of course what brings life to the Creature, and it is motifs like this that develop into a sense of lost potential as a result of the disjointed narrative.