Mary Shelly's Frankenstein (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"In the last 20, 30 years, [Frankenstein has] been claimed by a whole generation of academics and scholars as a seminal piece of literature of that time. [It's] something which now, post-Freud, they feel reveals so many observations about family life, and incest, father-and-son relationships, and husband and wife relationships. [Frankenstein] speaks loudly to people, partly because it's so elusive. There's no definitive interpretation of it - it's certainly more than just a monster story." - Kenneth Branagh, director of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

During the course of more than thirty adaptations, sequels, spin-offs, rip-offs, and spoofs, the name of "Frankenstein" has become associated with one of the world's most recognizable movie monsters. The creature, as typified by Boris Karloff with outstretched arms, flat-topped head, and ubiquitous neck bolts, has met the likes of Dracula, the Wolfman, and even Abbott and Costello. It has been played by (among others) Charles Ogle, Karloff, Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange, Christopher Lee, Fred Gwynne (as Herman Munster), and now, Robert De Niro. Rarely, however, has a cinematic interpretation of "the daemon" approached the level of three-dimensionality with which it is portrayed in the novel.

As conceived and written by Shelley, Frankenstein was more of a gothic melodrama than a horror story. Considered in its most basic terms, the tale is one of actions and their consequences, and of what happens when man, in his hubris, attempts to usurp the role of God. For the most part, however, motion pictures have chosen to ignore the weightier issues of the book to concentrate instead on the "monster movie" aspects. With this latest cinematic depiction, director (and uncredited co-writer) Kenneth Branagh has taken a less-traveled path. He has chosen to view Frankenstein as a tragedy of Greek (or, given his background, Shakespearean) proportions.

What Branagh should recognize better than anyone, though, is that tragedy is at its most effective when allowed to cook slowly, basting in its own juices. This version of Frankenstein moves so frantically that far too many subtleties get lost along the way. The result is a rousing, occasionally-chaotic (especially during the choppily-edited first half-hour) piece of work that, while undeniably entertaining, lacks a depth that might otherwise have been attained. Patrick Doyle's bombastic score helps only to underline the melodramatic elements of this production, rarely allowing a quiet or reflective moment.

As far as its faithfulness to the source material is concerned, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein frequently differs from the book on plot points, but the two are thematically in synch. Several movie characters bear little resemblance to their book counterparts beyond having the same name (Dr. Waldeman, Frankenstein's mentor, being a chief example), and there is a significant alteration in the last act. Surprisingly enough, although it reflects nothing written by Shelley, this scene is effective in underlining the weaknesses and strengths of both Victor Frankenstein and his creature.

Can a man create life, then abandon his creation because its appearance horrifies him? To whom are its actions then attributable: the creature or the being who brought about its existence? Shelley did not answer these questions, but she certainly posed them. Following her example, Branagh does the same.

The greatest strength of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is that it illustrates both the good and evil qualities in each of its main characters. Of the two - Robert De Niro's creature and Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein - the former is, perhaps surprisingly, the more sympathetic. In part because of the script and in part because of the acting (De Niro gives a far stronger performance than his director/co-star), the creature seems almost the more "human" of the two. In its own words, it is capable of great love and great rage. Frankenstein, on the other hand, often comes across as petty, self-serving, and ambitious. Only towards the end, when he finally grasps the full consequences of his actions, does the scientist capture a measure of our understanding.

Despite the presence of John Cleese - who is excellent in a straight, if somewhat limited, role - there is no comic relief in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (or at least none that is intentional - a few scenes here and there are too-obviously overacted, which can lead to a chuckle or two). However, since the screenplay is not relentlessly downbeat, the bursts of action and horror are effective enough in lessening tension that breaks of levity are not needed. In fact, given the tone of this film, humor might easily have seemed an unwelcome intrusion.

Shelley was never concerned about the scientific realism of Frankenstein's actions. She describes neither his experiments nor the practical (as opposed to the philosophical) reasoning that leads to them. In this film, while Branagh doesn't attempt to fully remedy this lapse (something that obviously can't be done), he presents enough pseudo-scientific evidence to suggest how the creation of a life might plausibly be accomplished. Suspension of disbelief is, of course, requisite for the viewer at this point.

One area where thisFrankenstein meets expectations is in its cast. The weakest link is Branagh, whose Victor is more than occasionally overwrought. De Niro, although buried beneath hours' worth of makeup, is less monstrous here than in films like Cape Fear and The Untouchables. The sequence where the creature befriends a family, anonymously providing them food (instead of firewood, as in the book) while observing and learning from them through a chink in a wall, is marvelously moving, and possibly the best moment offered by the film.

Helena Bonham Carter gives a feisty and fiery interpretation of Elizabeth, who eventually becomes much more than merely Frankenstein's love interest. Richard Briers (as the blind patriarch of the creature's adopted "family"), Ian Holm (as Frankenstein's father), Tom Hulce (as Frankenstein's best friend and fellow student, Henry Clerval), Aidan Quinn (as the north-pole bound explorer Robert Walton), Robert Hardy (as the odious Professor Krempe), Trevyn McDowell (as Justine, the Frankensteins' housekeeper) and John Cleese (as Waldeman, Frankenstein's mentor) round out the supporting cast.

The film has a striking visual look, which owes as much to the set design and special effects as to the soaring cinematography of Roger Pratt. Although Branagh does not opt for straight horror, the gothic element of the tale is very much in evidence as a result of the carefully-crafted atmosphere of several key scenes. From the Arctic Ocean to the Swiss Alps and the plague-riddled streets of Ingolstadt, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a wonder to behold.

Comparison's with 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula are inevitable, especially since both came from Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope production company. Considering the merits of both movies, however, there is little doubt which is more effective. Kenneth Branagh's film is stronger thematically and visually, possesses more solid characterization, and boasts Robert De Niro and Helena Bonham Carter rather than Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein may not be the definitive version of the 1817 novel, and the director likely attempted more than is practical for a two-hour film, but overambition is preferable to the alternative, especially if it results - as in this case - in something more substantial than Hollywood's typical, fitfully entertaining fluff.

Mary Shelly's Frankenstein (United States, 1994)

Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 1994-11-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1