Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Well, this movie is pretty awful.
I intended to watch this as part of my 31 Nights of Thrills series, and truthfully, I was rather excited about my viewing of this particular film. I’d never seen this movie before watching it last night, but recently I’d watch a slew of both old and new adaptations of the classic Universal Monster movies, and I was excited to see what an updated version of the story would look like. For the first ten minutes or so I was thrilled; I read Frankenstein last year (two years ago? I don’t know, time is weird), and to this day I found the story beautifully haunting. The way this film plays out is rather close to the book, and for that I praise this adaptation. However, while in story this film is rather close to its source material, the minor details that the film chooses to magnify are strange, and it makes the story completely uneven. At one point we might be watching a sappy love story and in the next a stitching together of body parts. This movie doesn’t know what it wants to be; a tragic love story, a story about the pursuit of knowledge, a warning against the dangers of meddling with things beyond our control- this film wants to be all of them, and as a result, it comes off as a jumbled mess that ultimately says nothing of value.
“Lives come and go. If we succeed, our names will live on forever.”
Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh, “Henry V”) leaves his home, his father (Ian Holm, “From Hell”), and his adopted sister Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”) with whom he is secretly in love, to attend a university in Ingolstadt. Once there he makes friends with fellow classmates Henry (Tom Hulce, “Amadeus”) and his teacher Professor Waldman (John Cleese, “A Fish Called Wanda”), the three of them form a bond over their interest in the reanimation of dead tissue, but only Frankenstein has the audacity to actually try the experiment with a corpse. Frankenstein is successful, and he raises the Creature (Robert De Niro, “Taxi Driver”) from the grave, only to immediately regret his decision. Victor flees, only to be pursued by the vengeful creature.
So, first and foremost, I must praise this film for its (partial) accuracy to the book. I loved the fact that Victor’s lab was in a city in a lofty apartment as it was in the book. I love the fact that the Creature is not just some bumbling, grumbling force of nature, but a creature that learns to want and love. There are many scenes that feel like they could’ve come right from the pages of source material, and some important scenes are better executed than any other Frankenstein adaptation I’ve seen. The scene that takes place right after the resurrection, when Victor attempts to help his monster stand, is marvelously conceived and directed; it feels like true gothic horror, but it also seems to represent much more than that. It’s the birth of a new species, help to its feet by its creator, and then promptly, mercilessly abandoned. The scene is incredibly powerful, and it’s easily the best scene (the only great scene) of this movie. The rest of the film, sadly, just doesn’t work very well.
One of the weirder changes this movie made from book to screenplay was the choice to play up the fact that Elizabeth and Victor are in love, but they are also adopted siblings. In the book, if I remember right, the fact that they are siblings is hardly mentioned; he refers to her more as his cousin (again, if I’m remembering right). This movie really emphasizes the fact that they are adoptive siblings, bringing it up multiple times, often during scenes of passion (there are no explicit sex scenes in this film, but there are several sensual moments). It’s as if the film’s writers were trying to make the viewers uncomfortable by constantly reminding the viewer that these people are tenuously related. It comes up so often that it honestly becomes annoying by the time the credits role. Another thing I didn’t really care for too much was that they sort of tied in the Bride of Frankenstein’s ending for this film, and it doesn’t really work for me. Also, one of the scenes near the climax has a death that feels more apropos of an Argento giallo film than a serious gothic drama. The script overall is incredibly uneven, as I mentioned above. I never really knew how I was supposed to feel emotionally during this film, as it never really settled on a tone. Each scene felt like it was something different, and the transitions were so jarring that the characters felt schizophrenic at times. As a result, I simply didn’t care about any of the characters, and a lot of the time I found myself more bored than anything else.
Sadly, the worst part of this movie is Kenneth Branagh. Don’t get me wrong, I generally enjoy Branagh’s work, but he can come off a bit theatrical (he did get his start as a Shakespearian stage actor). In this film, theatricality seems to be the name of the game. He was the director and lead actor in this picture, so a lot of the blame falls on him. His acting is overblown and ridiculous, to the point where it becomes irritating and frustrating to watch. I found myself cringing as he found any excuse to take his shirt off and run around his laboratory, long hair rippling behind him. The character of Frankenstein should be slightly unhinged, not running around looking like the cover of a $.99 harlequin romance novel. The way Victor Frankenstein is portrayed in this film is half psychopath half heartthrob, which is interesting, sure, but Kenneth couldn’t pull it off. Even Robert De Niro suffered when portraying the Creature in this movie. Maybe it was just the layers of makeup that Bobby was forced to wear, but he didn’t really emote much in this film; he just showed up, said his lines, and then the scene was over.
This movie is bad, but I kind of knew it would be going in. I had hoped with an all star cast, and a director I can usually trust, the film might’ve turned out at least passable, but it’s barely even that. Had I not been watching this film to review it for this site, I can guarantee I would’ve shut it off about halfway through. This is a boring, awkward, and overacted adaptation of Frankenstein that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. Watch “Frankenstein” (1931) or “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935); those movies are far better (and shorter).
This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!
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