Neither Man nor Monster
Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (what a mouthful) gets off to a roaring start. In the opening scene, composer Patrick Doyle's score is pounding away as if you'd got to the symphony late and missed the overture, and the camera shows us the white sweep of the Arctic where the icy ocean has frozen an explorer's ship to a halt. The men are about to mutiny, while the explorer (Aidan Quinn), possessed by the demons of science and discovery, declares they'll keep pushing north, the costs and death itself be damned.
Just as the men seem on the point of disciplining their little Bligh, a ghostly presence appears on the ice. We finally see it's a defeated looking Victor Frankenstein (Branagh), who is so exhausted that he can scarcely hang on to his sled. The effect of his appearance is theatrical in the best sense, that is, it's magical. And when Robert DeNiro's monster voice booms from behind him, carrying with it an almost unbearable load of rage and despair, I thought, Branagh is actually going to bring this old warhorse back to life, as if he were actually Victor Frankenstein resurrecting the dead.
Faithful to the book (unlike most Frankenstein films), Branagh then has his Victor tell his fantastic tale of woe to the ship's captain, and the movie takes us back to happier days in Switzerland, when Frankenstein was a young doctor-to-be, in love with his childhood companion, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). As the story follows Victor through the death of his mother and his arrival in medical school where he vows to find a way to defeat the death that took his mum, the movie is surprisingly successful.
I say surprisingly, because no matter how the filmmakers try to hype their movie, this isn't the first time Mary Shelley has been invoked as a badge of sincerity. The Bride of Frankenstein, way back when, was much closer to the novel than was Frankenstein. And just the other day TNT ran a faithful-to-the-novel miniseries with Randy Quaid as "the monster." Too, despite claims to literary correctness, the filmmakers do make a handful of plot changes, most ill-advised.
So, the original story is by no means fresh, but Branagh tells the story with such zip that it keeps moving anyway, carrying you along until the moment you've been waiting for, when Robert DeNiro appears as the streetwise, goodfella version of "the monster."
The acting is fine. As the med school sidekick, Tom Hulce is more likable than in years, and John Cleese (!) is quite strong as Victor's mad scientist mentor. Branagh himself isn't remarkable, but he at least plays the role straight. Surprisingly, Carter is the weak link, though as the patient virgin she isn't given much to do.
Though the movie has a nearly over-the-top drive fueled by its sweeping camera angles and pounding score, at times it threatens to careen out of control. When Victor first arrives at the university town and rides his horse through its gates, the shot is so dramatic you think he's being chased into the fort by the Apaches. The scenes in which the creature is pieced together and then brought to life are especially engaging -- if you suspend disbelief long enough to imagine all of Victor's machines existing 200 years ago and his being able to operate them all at once.
I could, because I was happy to see the old monster getting treated with so much respect. But once DeNiro's creature is birthed, the disappointment at his, well, ordinariness is so great that the whole enterprise falls apart.
I suppose that playing Frankenstein's monster is a thankless task, as the role will belong to Boris Karloff forevermore. If you don't play Frankenstein as he did, then you're not really playing Frankenstein at all. Dracula is open to interpretation, and insists on it, in fact. But if an actor doing Frankenstein's monster doesn't take his position somewhere on old Boris' playing field, he's not in the game. Even Sean Connery was marginally easier to replace as James Bond than was Karloff as the monster.
When DeNiro appears in his scar-face makeup, he no more passes for Frankenstein's monster than the Hulk would for Batman. He hesitates a little when he talks, but so do most of DeNiro's characters. I'm sorry to be so strict about this, but I don't make the rules.
None of this is DeNiro's fault, or Branagh's, for that matter. Unfortunately, they badly flub their slim chance at creating a new monster, and a new New Prometheus. DeNiro's monster not only isn't Karloff's grunting but so-expressive creature, he's not Shelley's either, though he does stomp off in her direction. Actually, if they had given DeNiro Shelley's original dialogue, the monster would have been DeNiro's most articulate character ever by a mile. Her monster ran around quoting Paradise Lost, which he had apparently committed to memory.
And when he finally confronted his maker with his list of grievances, he spoke with a desperate, transparent passion.
But here he's so prosaic that we get neither Karloff's primal levels of frustration and menace nor Shelley's high-Romantic angst. Instead, we get something much closer to you and me, a monster that has been cut down to size. DeNiro fails to give his monster a distinct physicality; rather than look like one who has come back from the dead, his monster appears more like a man who survived a car wreck. In this, the old death-warmed-over Karloff design better captures the spirit, if not the letter of Shelley's monster.
In another movie, that might be fine, but given that the rest of this film plays as a cinematic hurricane, DeNiro's poor fellow falls flat on his face. And once the creature is around, Branagh's performance goes into the toilet. At just the time he should become most passionate, most mad, his Victor becomes a spineless, boring noodle.
The film generally skimps where it should overload, and rushes through the confrontations between creature and creator so that they lose their larger meaning.
The film only takes on enough of Shelley's poetry to make a difference at the end, when DeNiro's monster exclaims, "He was my father." (This reminded me of a much more successful return to an original text, Greystoke, and the scene in which Tarzan/ Greystoke looks on a murdered ape and exclaims, "C'etait mon pere.") When the deeply moved ship's captain offers to take him back to civilization, the monster has his best line: "I am done with man."
With much more of this, Branagh and company might have gotten free of Karloff's ghost. As it is, however, we get only an exasperating hint of what might have been.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh. With Kenneth Branagh, Robert DeNiro and Helena Bonham Carter.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.