There’s so much to love about Kenneth Branagh’s take on the story of Frankenstein and his monster, but there is also so much to dislike. It is one of the most adapted, most filmed stories of all time, and Branagh takes it on as if there are no audience expectations at all. This is the first Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein movie ever, as far as he is concerned. That is admirable.
He also tells the story as if the audience were simultaneously studious fans of the novel and children who needed loud noises and explosions every five minutes. This is less admirable.
It’s also entirely within the expectations of Branagh’s filmmaking, at the time. He’s calmed down a little since then, but in his earlier films, Branagh exuded energy. Energy above everything, especially common sense. So Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often an energetic, frantically paced film. Even at the expense of its own story.
The best thing about this take on the story is it does not owe much of anything to any other adaptation. It begins with the novel and doesn’t reference the iconic Universal creature, or its doctor. Victor Frankenstein, played by Branagh with empathy and intelligence (and frequent shirtlessness) doesn’t seem dangerous. He’s not a madman, and his obsessions are borne from conviction. While his goal, the eradication of death, seems absurd, it isn’t mad.
The film builds to the creation of the creature very slowly. There’s a wraparound story, with Aidan Quinn as a ship captain seeking a passage to the North Pole. While his ship flounders in the ice, he comes across a curious sight: a man, moving along the ice on a sleigh, near death. This turns out to be Victor Frankenstein, and on his death bed he tells the captain his story. Why he’s there, traveling through the wastes, and what he’s chasing.
This wraparound story comes directly from the novel. It’s one of several aspects from the original that have been brought to the film. We follow Victor from his childhood to the eventual death of his mother, which sows the seeds of his obsessions.
These elements give the character some depth and grounding. They also slow down the story considerably – we’re nearly an hour in before there’s a creature on a slab, getting electrocuted. Of course, the creature doesn’t come out correct, and Victor throws it away before he himself nearly dies with a fever.
Thinking the creature dead, he goes back home to be a happy doctor… only the creature isn’t dead. It’s abandoned. And once it realizes what has happened to it, very, very angry. Frankenstein has been called (rather erroneously) the first science fiction novel, but it’s less a story about using science to reconstitute flesh than it is about bad parenting. Victor’s a brilliant scientist, but a crap dad and is constantly self-absorbed, using the guise of “the greater good” to just do whatever he wants, consequences be damned.
The original novel doesn’t have much in the way of science. A tiny bit of lip service is paid to electricity and galvanism, but the entire process of actually bringing a dead body to life is left entirely to the reader’s imagination. This could not work for a film. Traditionally, stormy nights and lightning are the vector, but Branagh’s Victor prefers not leaving things to the whims of the weather. So he uses electric eels. In a giant rubber container suspended in the ceiling. While the creature is immersed in a tub of heated amniotic fluid Victor purchases by the bucket from the local hospital. It’s really gross, it’s completely silly, and it is shown in an excessive action sequence that has ludicrous levels of bombast. The resurrection sequence veers wildly from impressive and energetic to ludicrous and, frankly, dumb.
That’s the story of this film. Everything about it is firing for the cheap seats, so the good ideas hit like sledgehammers. But the bad ones are pies in the face. And there are several. After committing a few murders, the creature confronts Victor and demands a meeting in the mountains. The following sequence with Branagh climbing in the Alps is gorgeously shot. It shows visually the character’s desolation, isolation, and the horror of confronting the nature of this alien thing he has brought into being. Then the creature arrives out of nowhere, shoves him down an ice hole, and Victor takes a sledless luge ride in a sequence that looks transported through time from the Peter Jackson Hobbit movies.
And the Creature, played by De Niro, is a bit of a problem. Set in the early 18th century, the film uses elevated semi-poetic language. The British cast handles this with aplomb. Robert De Niro, his face hidden with truly excellent realistic make-up, never sounds comfortable. His creature talks, is eloquent, like the monster from the novel. But he also sounds like he just arrived on a red eye from Brooklyn. He’s occasionally effective when he spouts declarative monster dialogue: “If you deny me my wedding night, I will be with you on yours.” But his conversation does not convince.
Which is a shame because when the movie works (and that is often), it’s exhilarating. The screenplay was by Frank Darabont, who reportedly hated the film. He had his reasons, and Branagh’s aversion to subtlety grates. But some of his grand gestures make for actual grand filmmaking.
This 4K release, unfortunately, doesn’t show that off perfectly. The grainy nature of the film’s footage makes it hard to use as show-off material. There are occasional shots and scenes that look astounding, but often there’s not much of an apparent improvement over a lower resolution release.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was one of my personal favorite films when I was young. It came out when I was in high school, and I saw it at least twice in the theater, and several times on VHS after. What resonated with me was the complete, epic feel of the story told. It did not seem like a small horror film, but something grander.
Looking at it from an adult perspective, some of the grandiosity now comes across as pompous, even silly. It isn’t constantly loud and grating, but enough that the quieter scenes get lost in the noise. The performances (with my noted hesitations about De Niro’s creature notwithstanding) are great. The make-up is astounding and should have won the Academy Award it was nominated for. The music by Patrick Doyle matches the histrionics on screen but is still one of my favorite scores of the era. It’s an almost great film. And almost terrible. Almost.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been released on 4K UHD. Extras include a new commentary by critics Michael Brooke and Johnny Mains. Video extras include “Mary Shelley and the Creation of a Monster” (30 min) a feature with David Pirie, Stephen Volk, and Jonathan Rigby on the novel and its adaptations; “Dissecting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (16 min), which includes a discussion of the film and its differences with the novel; “Frankenstein” (1910) (13 min), the first screen adaptation of the novel by Edison films; “Stitching Frankenstein” (15 min), an interview with costume designer James Acheson; “We’ll Go No More A Roving” (13 min), an interview with composer Patrick Doyle; “Making it All Up” (15 min), an interview with make-up artist Daniel Parker. There are also trailers and image galleries, and articles with the included booklet.