How odd it is that Hollywood, so often derided for near-dependence on adaptations and sequels, has avoided re-making certain classic, period adaptations. Or perhaps I should marvel that they do not re-remake those films, like Frankenstein (1994), that were highly unloved. Sure, they translate (often terribly) these stories into the modern day, the future, or the abstract, but no other period adaptation of the Mary Shelley’s novel has been made other than Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein (1931). There’s The Invisible Man (1933), Ivanhoe (1952), Catch-22 (1970), Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Psmith, Journalist (PG Wodehouse, 1910), Captains Courageous (1937), The Red Badge of Courage (1951), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), and presumably others that have been adapted once (cited) or never. [I eschew, unforgivably, TV movies and series which, until very recently, have been uniformly abysmal.] If I’m not mistaken, all but For Whom the Bell Tolls are in the public domain, and thus free to adapt. But in Frankenstein, there is a lesson to be learned. Don’t let passion consume you and your work.
At the close of the 18th century, Captain Robert Walton (Aidan Quinn) is on an expedition to the North Pole when his determination turns to obsession and nearly kills everyone on board. They sail into an iceberg, the ship locking into it, frozen to its side. The next morning, Walton intends to sled to the pole, but a mysterious figure, coming from the snowy desert, approaches. It is Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) and he is pursued by a terrible monster (Robert De Niro). Frankenstein is the son of a well-established doctor (Ian Holm) in Geneva. He is a studious boy, but is prodded into play by his mother (Cherie Lunghi) and adopted sister Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). In college, however, Frankenstein becomes obsessed with reanimation under the tutelage of one of his professors (John Cleese). After his teacher is killed, Frankenstein uses the man’s secret notes to finally complete his work and reanimate a whole human being. But what is created is an ugly monster who, though initially good, turns to revenge for his own creation.
Although I’m not sure that it isn’t the most maudlin part of the movie, I have a strong appreciation for the score by Patrick Doyle. It is certainly the strongest technical aspect of the film. The sets are, admittedly, elaborate and well-produced, but who’s really looking? The editing is incredible. That is, in-credible. How could they watch this in the screening and think it was good enough to go out? The forty minutes before monster is so tightly packed with expository scenes that it felt like twenty long minutes. Despite a two-hour run time, all appearances suggest that director Kenneth Branagh (and writers Steph Lady and Frank Darabont) wanted to make an unabridged adaptation. You feel that in the plot and, most especially, in driving home the themes of mortality and creation. The sentiment is absolutely adorable, but the execution was hit and miss almost entirely because of the dumb notion that movies can’t be three hours long.
Here’s the ‘almost’ part of “almost entirely”. Frankenstein, the book, is a Gothic novel of the Romantic period, so the feelings are right there on the surface. I find that kind of pop-gun emotion to be silly. Branagh being of the Shakespearean persuasion—and most all of his actors extremely well-trained—things get too theatrical about a half-dozen times. And, while I appreciate that Branagh was able to chronicle a time in his life when he had an admirable physique, he is a bit too undressed and oily to be anywhere but the cover of a naughty romance novel. The worst offender on the acting front is Aidan Quinn who plays the obsessed captain like Long John Silver without the Cornish accent. Then there’s Branagh himself who loads up on darkly passionate dialogue spoken with head at a constant 30 degree down-angle (and remember the tight, tight schedule).
Compare that with De Niro’s (relatively) restrained performance as the Monster. In fact, the Monster gets all the best treatment. His story is calmly told with well-paced development. Other than his homicidal tendencies, the Monster seems like one of the more normal people in Europe at the time. Helena Bonham Carter was also pretty good. She still looked part-ingénue so when the crazy came out, it actually sparked an emotional response. She suffers from the theatrical dialogue, of course, but that’s the price of romance. There are three parts of this movie. The beginning, which is rushed, the Monster’s story which is not, and the climactic conflicts, which are also rushed. Something interesting, however, is that Branagh choreographs many scenes to give this fluid motion of the camera against actors, like you would in a long tracking shot. Its interesting, but I’m not sure it was for a purpose.
If the movie were treated better, perhaps it wouldn’t have turned on the audiences. Still, there is enough here for someone to like. It’s available on Blu-ray, so someone must like it. I was going to Tweet Branagh and ask if there was more footage for an extended feature, but he isn’t on Twitter. After Thor (2011), who can blame him?