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Frankenstein Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    Frankenstein Review

    Arriving after Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) opulently graced cinema screens and just before Wolf (1994) whimpered virtually unheard and unseen through the multiplex shadows - both BD's reviewed separately - it is now time to turn our attention to Columbia Tristar's other classical monster reworking in their mixed-up trilogy of big budget, big name productions with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, as retold by director/star Kenneth Branagh and screenwriters Steph Lady and Frank Darabont in 1994. In many ways, the mammoth and hotly anticipated project was as daunting and as irresistible to the young filmmaker as the quest to create life was for the misbegotten Victor Frankenstein ... and the fruits of his creative labours would prove almost as controversial.

    “You fool, Victor Frankenstein of Geneva ... how could you know what you had unleashed? How was it pieced together? With bits of thieves? Bits of murderers? Evil stitched to evil stitched to evil. God help your loved ones ...”

    The story of Frankenstein, set in eternal motion by Mary Shelley in her progressive novel published in 1818, scarcely needs any introduction. Told and retold in dramatisations for big and small screen, comics, stage-plays and even rock musicals, made famous by Universal and Boris Karloff in their hugely influential series of vintage chillers, baton-passed to Hammer for an even more garish and outrageous run of Gothic pot-boilers and then adapted, lampooned, spoofed and cherished time and time again since, the tale of one man's obsessive determination to play God and defeat the boundaries of mortality is, absolutely, the most enduring horror saga. Its themes, concepts and postulations on life, knowledge and the corruption of the soul so boundlessly intriguing and controversial that it is a tale that will surely run on and on forever more, in one guise or another.

    Yet whilst the viewing public were extraordinarily well-versed in the cinematic tellings of the story, Shelley's original narrative had really only ever been hinted-at. The Big Moments were always in place. We had half-deranged scientists jolting mismatched cadavers back to life and the subsequent psychological and emotional hell that it caused the usually monstrous offspring - but the tale was, more often than not, allowed to degenerate into farcical rampage or else confuse Frankenstein's noble aspirations to better Mankind with egocentric and pathological zeal of the meanest and most pointless kind. This new version which is, of course, now just another version, tasked itself with rectifying all that and staying faithful, if not completely to the letter of Shelley's book, then certainly to the essence of her nightmarish and wholly prescient scenario.

    Branagh's adaptation is vigorous, exciting and defiantly attempts to tick off all the relevant boxes that Shelley offered. But, despite so many great elements going in to its vividly drawn melting-pot, the final film still ended-up becoming a disappointment to critics and genre-fans on many levels. Following the original story was essential to finding the heart of the impetus to why Victor Frankenstein (Branagh) so aggressively wants to cheat death, but the cloying nicety of such flashback scenes to a sickly saccharine family mansion almost derails any sense of “naturalness” that the film should have. Practically immediately, Branagh has set the tone - at least partially - for the film as being precisely what many had feared when they heard his name was attached to the project ... ripe theatricality. And this larger-than-life mentality towards the nuts 'n' bolts, gristle 'n' sinew continues throughout. But, and here's the thing, James Whales' two classic trendsetters back in the 30's, were also considered highly camp and archly theatrical even for their times. Thus, Branagh is only investing the same emotional dialect to his interpretation. But the nineties were vastly different in filmic sensibilities and this was an attitude that didn't go down too well with audiences who wanted a more realistic and full-throttle approach.

    But just as his creation needs energy to live, so too does Branagh's adaptation ... and it is here that he excels.

    “Massive birth defects. Greatly enhanced physical strength ... but the resulting re-animant is malfunctional, pitiful ... and dead.”

    Branagh's buffed-up medical student becomes an obsessive visionary intent on defeating God's broken code for life and death. Fuelled by the fateful devastation of familial tragedy he scuttles off to Ingolstadt to learn the secrets of biology, chemistry and physiology in order to unlock the power over mortality, itself. Becoming impatient with the traditional teachings in the halls of academia and the lack of flair and imagination exhibited by those who are supposedly experts in the field, Victor, along with his somewhat reluctant fellow student, Henry Clerval (Tom Hulce on fine and initially relaxed and cheery form) make the acquaintance of the once renowned but considerably unorthodox Dr. Waldman (an almost unrecognisable and purely compelling John Cleese), a man who has already explored the dangerous regions of extreme knowledge that the young Frankenstein is fated to venture into, and found only abomination there. Learning of Waldman's secret experiments in discovering the essence of life, and how to both prolong and fabricate it, Victor's own keen brain dots a few i's and crosses a few elusive t's, and the path to death, depravity tragic consequence is sewn in earnest, his destiny stitched as roughly, but as irrevocably as the patch-work monstrosity that he labours, night and day, to bring to life in the shadows and steam of his elaborate garret-based laboratory. In a twist of fate, Waldman is killed by a peg-legged peasant (Robert De Niro bleating in a bizarre accent to the exasperated medico, who just wants to inoculate him against smallpox, that “You're not stickin' that in me!” before sticking his own blade into the tired old boffin's gut) whose swiftly executed body goes on to form the main template of his wretched new creation. Powerfully sexual imagery abounds in Victor's lab, almost to the point of abject pantomime. A vaginal sarcophagus houses the pick 'n' mix body, whilst a grotesquely scrotum-shaped sack of writhing, sperm-like eels generate electricity above, the two ultimately conjoined by a phallic tube that delivers the gushing amniotic fluids and eels down into the conceptual chamber below.

    The resulting creation, suddenly loathsome to Victor, is spurned and driven out, left to fend for itself in the hovels and glens, afraid to approach a society that so violently and incomprehensibly despises it. But a Monster, even one who initially means no harm, can be pushed too far and, after more emotional calamity, embarks upon a campaign of retribution against the man who deserted it.

    “There was something at work in my soul which I do not understand.”

    “What of my soul? Do I have one? Or was that a part you left out?”

    Hugely operatic and overblown to almost preposterous proportions, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein aims for heights of emotional poignancy and crazed intensity, yet it too often neglects the very things that made the novel and the majority of the earlier filmic translations so atmospheric - that all-important sense of horror. Too easily, Darabont's script and Branagh's interpretation of it stymies itself with inept and overwrought histrionics and overt theatricality. You can imagine this sort of thing going down an absolute storm on-stage in front of a live audience, but the cumulative effect of all the potent literacy abounding and frothing from the mouths of the cast ultimately proves the film's undoing. Branagh is terrific on the BIG moments, and many of the quieter, more character-infused segments, such as the chapter with the young family and the blind grandfather in the woods, but he completely scuppers the overall narrative in his devout notion of creating a headlong momentum that simply will not stop. Once the Monster's vengeance is set in motion, the film just does not know when to pause and breathe, or, most importantly, when to slow down in order to create a sense of genuine tension and jeopardy. All too frequently, the film seems as though it is surging ahead of itself, like a carriage without a driver to lead the horses it hits rough patches and just blunders on through, jostling its own internal logic in favour of a frantic and aimless rush to thrust us through one lightning-quick set-piece after another.

    And yet there is still so much here that works, once you have accepted its over-the-top style.

    I certainly won't say anything against Branagh's ambitious quest to bring yet another literary work to the screen. Having championed the Bard with some of his previous films - Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing both attaining much kudos - the once-distinctive British voice of cinematic endeavour was uniquely placed to mount such an extravagant production as this. That his directorial style is stringently melodramatic, boyishly coy and reeking of innate grandiosity shouldn't be all that surprising. Though many are turned off by his fondness for “luvvie” casting and his considerably artistic bent, this overreaching attitude is actually perfectly in-tune with the character he is playing. At times it can seem as if Victor Frankenstein, himself, is constructing the film, marrying-up bits and pieces found prior versions and littered throughout Shelley's text in absolute haste to reveal some exultant outcome at the end. And as regards his portrayal of Victor, he can be seen to be occupying two ends of the spectrum. Often, he is indulgent, driven and mawkish all at once. His love scenes are trite and, sadly, quite off-putting, his supposedly “younger” days (shorn of beard) are wretched. But there is a tremendously dynamic grace to his performance that is exciting to watch. Leaping around the laboratory during the creation sequence, for instance, provides one of the most adrenalised interpretations of the famous scene. Stripped to the waist and hauling chains and manhandling gurneys, scaling the sarcophagus and yelling “Live!” like his own life depends upon it totally embody the actor/director's intentions to have this version come across as sexy and ribald - yet he then blows this scientific-machismo by having himself and De Niro's nude newborn Creature fumble around with one another in a sticky pool of goo, literally slithering and slobbering together in a blatantly homo-erotic ballet that, frankly, goes on far too long. He seems totally smitten with addressing far too many angles - morality, science versus religion, family honour, sexual appetite, social squalor versus class etiquette, the ties of obligation and the selfish repercussions of revenge - that the film becomes a veritable smorgasbord of ideas that rarely enjoy full development. But, what could so easily have resulted in an unholy mess actually shapes itself into a very enjoyable and darkly inspired romp.

    “I do know that, for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me, the likes of which you can scarcely imagine. And rage, the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”

    Despite his rather typical casting of the likes of Helena Bonham Carter as Victor's childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth, Ian Holm (as the heart-on-his-sleeve Frankenstein Snr.), Robert Hardy as the volatile and single-minded Prof. Krempe, Richard Briars as the benevolent blind man in the woods and Cherie Lunghi as Victor's ill-fated mother, Branagh made a tremendous and utterly unexpected coup in securing Robert De Niro not only to appear in the film, but to bring to life one of the most iconic characters in genre history. That such a gamble paid off and, in fact, becomes one of the most memorable and magnificent elements of the film, is true testament to two things. The first, and certainly not one to be overlooked, is that having someone of De Niro's popular and critically-acclaimed stature would give the film massive credence and ensure audiences making the trip to the flicks. Coppola, executive producing, would not have been shy about this resolute potential marketing triumph, having peppered his own Dracula reworking with as many hot 'n' hip faces as he could muster. But both he and Branagh were also acutely aware of the incredible intensity and power that the actor could bring to the role. And, beyond any doubt, the best and most intimately emotional moments of the film come courtesy of De Niro's tormented performance. Lamenting his lot in this unwanted life and vowing despicable vengeance upon the man responsible don't so much as recall a bitter and twisted Max Cady or socially maladjusted Travis Bickle as define Shelley's own Creature in fiercely poignant and literal terms, for not since Michael Sarazin played him in TV's intelligent and thought-provoking Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) has the Monster been allowed the soul that the writer had laboured so hard to invest him with. Karloff's indomitable and immediately recognisable depiction will always be the definitive interpretation, of course, but it is not, at all, and never has been an accurate one.

    Comparing Frankenstein's blind obsession with that of Aidan Quinn's seafaring captain Walton, who is trying to crash his way through the Polar ice in order to locate a passage to the North Pole at the deadly expanse of his ship and his crew, is straight out of Shelley's letter-based commencement of the book and, even if it seems new to a lot of people, serves also to reinforce the story's pivotal motif of the isolating factor of such an inhospitable location upon those who find themselves trapped there. Frankenstein, pursuing his quarry to the ends of the Earth after the Creature has wrought death and destruction upon his family, is seeking cold revenge ... and discovering only the cold emptiness of his own heart. The Creature, who always wanted to head to the North Pole to live out his miserable existence away from the hostility of Man, incredibly finds compassion, redemption and solace in the white-out wasteland, his own prejudices melting even as the ice underfoot refuses to. Walton, whose tale bookends the film, comes to understand the cold ruthlessness of unattainable dreams and, even if Quinn sounds horribly anachronistic when compared to everyone else, becomes the one beacon of common-sense in what is, and always has been, a very cautionary tale.

    “Make sure you keep your pistols dry.”

    “They're dry enough. And if they fail, we've others. And if those fail - we can always gut the bastard!”

    A clever trick was in combining Shelley's original story with selected elements from James Whale's terrific sequel Bride Of Frankenstein, written, just like the first film, by John L. Balderston and tacked-on here with surprisingly effective results. The novel had the Creature demanding that Victor build him a mate, as a penance for his sin of deserting him at birth, but Shelley has the errant visionary tear then the resulting She-Monster to bits long before the point of bestowing it life. Branagh and Darabont actually give De Niro's Creature a much fuller arc by having him taste the very thing that would have him “make peace with all” and, as a consequence, the whole glorious tragedy of the tale now seems more complete, both painfully sweeter and much more poetic with melancholy. This extra chapter is exciting, grim and grotesque, but also eerily beautiful and almost, but not quite moving enough. That it fails at the last minute is down to some simply dreadful overacting from Branagh and Bonham Carter, the latter even reducing me to a giggle or two - which is something that I wouldn't normally admit to with a subject of this calibre, but since she is, possibly, the worst thing about this movie, anyway, I don't mind sharing that with you. But he deserves praise for confronting the very part that most readers of the book have trouble with, and that most filmmakers strenuously avoid - that of Victor's almost immediate casting-aside of the thing he has devoted his life to creating. In truth, Shelley fumbles this, herself, as it just doesn't make any tangible sense. But, from James Whale onwards, the films have simply had the Monster escape or carry out murderous tasks for their nefarious creators. Whether or not you think that Branagh actually brings any coherent relevance to Victor's abject horror at what he has done, is down to you, but he does, at least, have the guts to follow the book's confused twist.

    “You poor man. Have you no friends?”

    “There are some people ... but they don't know me.”

    “Why do you not go to them?”

    “Because I am so very ... ugly ... and they are so very ...beautiful.”

    Richard Briars and De Niro establish one of the most mournful relationships in the film, and a passage that is famed amongst Frankenstein depictions from Universal to Mel Brooks. I can recall reviews at the time belittling both actors in this scene and being especially cruel to Briars who, they all seemed to have forgotten, was actually a classically trained Shakespearean performer and, quite clearly, nails his brief characterisation of the blind man who befriends the Creature. The scene has always been a powerful one and even if Branagh allows it to reach its sad denouement all too swiftly, the aftermath which finds De Niro's spurned and aggrieved outcast sobbing to himself in abject misery and clutching the little red flower signifying the only flash of hope in his life, is exquisitely moving. Likewise, the scene in the ice cave when he confronts his Maker and delivers his lonely ultimatum sees De Niro on top form, delivering a great performance from behind the mass of scarred prosthetics that hits home against Branagh's surprisingly understated and somewhat insipid retaliation. It's a shame about the Ice Age-style slide of ice, though! A great touch has the Creature take Frankenstein's frock-coat after his initial abandonment in the lab and then come to wear it throughout the rest of the film. Obviously designed to give him an iconic look, particularly effective when seen in shadow or silhouette, there is also something dangerously touching about this passing-on of the costume, making another strange connection between the two men, between Father and Son.

    “Who are you?”

    “He never gave me a name ...”

    The production values are breathtaking. The sense of period is precise and exacting, with the slums of Ingolstadt , Victor's immense digs-cum-laboratory, the Frankenstein family estate and the elegantly simple polar sets looking fabulously detailed and yet fancifully artificial at the same time. The costumes are impeccable and the ambience of the era totally beguiling. We can feel the cold, and smell the decay. We can easily imagine the danger and constant suspicion that festoon the streets. Moments of mob-rule also galvanise the senses almost as much as Victor's electric eels and vat of amniotic fluid do with the Creature. Branagh stages such brutality without flinching, a couple of hangings and the sequence of the crowd turning on the bewildered Creature quite striking for their sudden vehemence. But the film is not overly violent at all. Arguably, there is only one actually gory bit in the conventional genre sense, but this pivotal and, indeed, heart-stopping, moment, at least, provides a gleeful sense of delightful Grand Guignol in a treatment that implies so much, but shows so little. Perhaps the most fascinating thing is the makeup for the Creature, something that has always been of integral value to the story and our reaction to it. The Oscar-nominated look, here, from Daniel Parker is horrific and pitiable, De Niro wrapped inside a thicker-set bodysuit, his face criss-crossed with unskilled stitching, his eyes odd, though both enormously warm and sympathetic, tufts of hair stippling his rough skull and a couple of hand-me-down hands of differing lengths. The concept is that he not a monster at all, but a badly disfigured man, and the appearance, coupled with De Niro's gangling gait makes his sudden primal attacks all the more shocking and unpredictable. De Niro's New York brogue, minimalised by padded latex lips and decrepit dentures does still come forth on occasion but, fortuitously enough, actually makes his voice sound a little bit more alien and inhuman when blubbered out of such a misshapen mouth.

    Some great shots in the Swiss Alps - the novel's spiritual home, incidentally - taken during a week-long sojourn from Shepperton Studios, where the bulk of it was made, provide some breadth to a film that can be quite claustrophobic at times. The vast sets, some of the biggest that the studio has ever been witness to, are meticulous, but Roger Pratt's photography is largely intimate and highly subjective, which can lessen the otherwise profound effect of the often German Expressionist design-work. Awesome set design is provided with a sweeping palatial ballroom and grand curved staircase in the Frankenstein family mansion, a full-size schooner for Captain Walton, a delightful ice-cave that harkens back to the one that the Monster and the Wolf Man finds themselves encased in back in Universal's heyday and, naturally, Victor's lab is the kind of place that you would just love to spend some time poking around. Branagh has a good eye for iconic imagery, as well. The Monster suspended by chains by his shocked and repulsed Father, a pair of mismatched eyes peeping through a crack in a wall and, most emphatically of all, a body in cruciform pose and strapped to a grill being manoeuvred over our heads. Victor carrying another body - freshly murdered - to his relocated lab, a scarlet cloak billowing behind them like a growing pool of blood. And, a human fireball waltzing along a corridor, setting ablaze everything around it. All visions of a world on the brink of a new age, yet turned mad with the war between stifled ideology and supremely challenged faith.

    In-keeping with the operatic nature of the film, composer Patrick Doyle - Branagh's friend and frequent collaborator - creates a soaring score of powerful orchestral might and dense thematic weight. Its gloom is undeniable, but the motifs he creates weave majestically through the film's wilder excursions to reach plenty of resonance. The creation-scene is a fantastic tour-de-force of all-out exhilaration, musically, as is the title theme, that recurs several times during the movie. All this makes the forced literacy of the script a lot more palatable and gives the film's action scenes, which Branagh is not particularly adept at choreographing, some added kinetic momentum. Trust me, I've discovered, to my own horror, that I haven't started cooking the tea for the wife and kids who are about to arrive home imminently, and that momentous cue for “The Creation” has been exactly the musical accompaniment to propel me into whirling culinary action!

    “Tomorrow, this journal and this evil must be destroyed ... forever.”

    So, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, as depicted by man-on-a-mission Kenneth Branagh, is not the greatest interpretation of the classic tale, but it is one of the most faithful to the original source. Steph Lady's and Frank Darabont's screenplay, no matter how annoyingly self-conscious it is, is remarkably fresh and full of metaphor, symbolism and noble accusation. Under Branagh's passionate direction, the film is vigorous, full-blooded and chaotic. He ascertained at the time of production that the concept couldn't be more timely and relevant to today's techo-challenging society, what with gene-manipulation, organ transplants, bionic limbs and the desperate search to find cures for cancer and AIDS, etc., all daily occurrences and, of course, that adage still holds up a full fifteen years on. Although his own performance in the title role veers from fine to farcical, De Niro's anchors the production with doomed nobility and a truly touching and wistful sense of melancholy. There is excellent support from Briars and Hulce and, especially, from Cleese, although Helena Bonham Carter is a definite fly-in-the-ointment being both unappealing and unconvincing as the love of Victor's life, ironically only coming alive in the role after Elizabeth has, well, been on the receiving end of the good doctor's, ahem, electric eel.

    But with terrific makeup from Daniel Parker and Paul Engelen, rich production design and that thunderous score from Patrick Doyle, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein proves itself to be bold attempt to capture the mad visions that plagued the young writer's nightmares on the banks of Lake Geneva almost two hundred years ago.

    Recommended for stormy nights and a strong 7 out of 10.