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Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the 1994 companion piece to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), is directed by star Kenneth Branagh, and co-produced by Francis Ford Coppola and James V. Hart (the director and screenwriter, respectively, of Bram Stoker’s Dracula). While it is hampered somewhat by an uneven performance by Kenneth Branagh, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is nevertheless a solid film that explores Mary Shelley’s original themes in a way that no other previous version has done.
The story of the film is told through an extended flashback. Swiss medical student Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) is obsessed with defeating death. Prowling graves and hospitals, he assembles a human body and manages to bring it to life. His creature (Robert DeNiro) is intelligent but horrible to look at, and society cruelly shuns him. His sadness turns to anger, and he soon becomes violent, seeking revenge against the creator that brought him to life with no concern for the consequences.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is extremely faithful to its source material, a quality it shares with Bram Stoker's Dracula. It does shorten some of the events of the novel, such as the trial of Justine Moritz (Trevyn McDowell), a servant of the Frankenstein family whom the Creature frames for a murder, and the death of Henry Clerval (Tom Hulce), Frankenstein’s best friend. It also adds a significant event near the end of the film (which will be discussed later in the review). Nevertheless, this is the first movie version that actually recounts the same story that Mary Shelley originally wrote in 1818, including the framing device of Captain Walton’s expedition to the North Pole. Walton (Aidan Quinn) provides us with a character that finally offers the Creature some sympathy; unlike most of humanity, he treats the Creature as a person, not a monster. He also takes the tragic lessons of the story to heart, learning that sometimes actions can have terrible consequences. This framing device respects Mary Shelley’s structure, and adds dimensions to the story that previous versions have lacked.
While many versions of this story portray the Creature as a sad, pathetic wretch, or a violent, unstoppable killing machine, this film is different. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the Creature turns to evil because of his complete rejection by society, not because of a defective brain. This seemingly minor detail, taken directly from the original novel, allows the film to explore the true tragedy of Frankenstein's monster. The Creature is extremely intelligent, but his horrible appearance causes people to fear and torment him. The fact that his tormented and pitiable existence is caused by Frankenstein's disregard for the consequences of the things that he does, is probably the most important theme in the film. As in the novel, Frankenstein has fantastic ideas and theories, but cares little about their cost. He obsessively creates his Creature, but once his Creature is alive, writes that it is “pitiful” and leaves it to die.
This lack of concern for consequences is evident throughout the film. While he is in medical school, he points out to everyone that Professor Waldman (John Cleese) had once experimented with reanimating the dead. This effectively puts Waldman’s reputation in serious jeopardy, which Frankenstein uses as leverage to elicit Waldman's assistance in his own experiments. Later, he brings a frog back to life, and cheers his success. He merrily leaves, letting the frog writhe in pain. This aspect of Frankenstein's personality, however, is best illustrated by the films major departure from the original novel. After the Creature has killed Elizabeth, a despondent and guilt-ridden Frankenstein uses his equipment to bring her back to life. Tellingly, Frankenstein doesn’t ask her how she feels, but rather asks her again and again to say his name. This sequence, Frankenstein pathetically begging the reanimated Elizabeth to speak his name indicates that, despite the horrific events of the film, Frankenstein still cares only for himself. He brings Elizabeth back to life for himself, regardless of Elizabeth's feelings on the matter. Elizabeth promptly kills herself rather than live as a reanimated Creature, demonstrating rather graphically that disregard for consequences can lead to destruction and pain.
The presentation of these themes is made possible by the wonderful depiction of the relationship between Frankenstein and his Creature. The two characters are portrayed as intellectual equals, and their scenes together for the most part present a more philosophical, rather than a visceral, horror. The Creature chillingly describes to Frankenstein how he killed his younger brother, and points out his selfishness. When the two encounter each other on the “sea of ice,” the Creature's intelligence is made clear not only to the audience, but to Frankenstein as well. The Creature asks Frankenstein “Who am I?” and even asks if he (the Creature) has a soul. Frankenstein responds with sadness and, for once, a desire to make amends. The Creature both loathes and is in awe Frankenstein, and Frankenstein is at once afraid of the Creature and pities him. It is an odd relationship, sophisticated and complex. At the very end of the film, Frankenstein dies in his sleep. The Creature soon appears, and weeps at his bedside. Captain Walton asks the Creature why he is crying, and the Creature mournfully responds, “He was my father.” Despite the strangeness of the relationship, the bonds between Frankenstein and his Creature are undeniable.
The cast in this film ranges from brilliant to satisfactory. Unsurprisingly, Robert DeNiro gives the best performance in the film, aided greatly by convincing make-up that makes him actually look like a collection of body parts sewn together. Playing the Creature initially as a child (much like Boris Karloff), DeNiro beautifully portrays his innocence and initial fear. In DeNiro’s hands, the Creature seems almost embarrassed to be seen, and ashamed of his own appearance. Frankenstein has given him uneven legs, which DeNiro demonstrates by walking with a subtle limp. When the family for whom he has been secretly gathering food throws him out of their house, the Creature cries in pain and sorrow. It is a heart-wrenching scene. His plaintive mourning and tears can break the heart. Conversely, DeNiro also vividly portrays the Creature’s violent and frightening nature. Wearing an old jacket of Frankenstein’s, he cocks his head to one side radiating subtle threat. With an unsettling smirk, he chillingly and almost casually describes the way he killed Frankenstein’s younger brother, and when he rips Elizabeth’s heart right out of her chest before Frankenstein and shouts “I keep my promises!”, he is genuinely frightening. DeNiro offers a layered and magnificent performance that nearly equals (but does not surpass) that of Boris Karloff.
DeNiro’s outstanding performance is complemented by a solid supporting cast. Helena Bonham Carter is good as Elizabeth. While the script makes her little more than a love interest, Carter is able to imbue Elizabeth with a lively energy and intelligence that gives the audience the impression that she is a fully realized character. Playing Elizabeth as fun-loving but serious when she needs to be, she is not subservient help-mate to Frankenstein. Henry Clerval, acted by Tom Hulce, is an intelligent but bumbling young man who has the thankless task of being Frankenstein’s conscience. However, despite the almost cliché role, and Tom Hulce does it very well. Finally, John Cleese is brilliant in his brief role as Waldman. Bravely offering no hints of the comic brilliance that he is known for, Cleese makes Waldman seem even more grave and sincere. This group of actors provides capable support to DeNiro's wonderful performance.
Sadly, Kenneth Branagh, who plays Frankenstein himself, gives the weakest performance in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. While he has more than a few effective moments (especially during the imaginative creation scene), he fails to appear authentic throughout much of the film. When DeNiro weeps, it is a plaintive outburst of honest pain. When Branagh weeps, however, it is just an actor dutifully performing a crying scene. While Branagh is an effective actor when paired with DeNiro or Carter for their extended scenes, when left to his own devices he appears too earnest, bordering on being “goody-goody”. For example, when, at his mother’s grave, he vows that he will “stop this [death],” with such a flair for over-dramatics the sense it not of a man on a noble if misguided mission, but more “ho-hum.” He doesn’t seem obsessed with defeating death; rather it seems like the idea just radomly occurred to him. During the first half of the film, he appears so jolly and at peace with himself that his later sad and depressed scenes are not believable. Never really inhabiting Frankenstein the way that DeNiro completely inhabits the Creature, there is always the impression of watching Kenneth Branagh perform Frankenstein, rather than of watching Frankenstein himself.
Branagh’s direction, thankfully, is better than his acting. Branagh effectively creates a believable 18th Century atmosphere through effective use of different locations and costumes. The sprawling staircase in Frankenstein's home suggests impressive power and wealth, while the strange, theatrical classroom, with all seats circled around the instructor, indicates the powers of orthodoxy with which Frankenstein has to contend. Branagh often uses swooping camera shots to impart a sense of Frankenstein’s obsessive desire to create new life, and the fast moving camerawork subtly show us that Frankenstein is working at a frantic pace, cutting important corners. This is especially evident in the creation scene, which is the best moment in the film. The Creature is in a metal vat with tubes attached that send electric eels into it to supply electricity. At the proper moment, Frankenstein sets the machine to work, and then stands on top of it bare-chested screaming “Live, live, LIVE!!” The vat shakes and the electricity crackles; it is an impressive sight to see. At first, it appears that the experiment was a failure, but, in the only homage to the 1931 classic, Frankenstein sees the Creature’s hand move and exclaims “It’s alive. It’s alive!” Branagh’s direction imparts an almost operatic sense to the Creature’s creation. Also adept at visually expressing Frankenstein’s growing madness, Branagh again uses his creativity behind the camera to say what the dialogue does not. After Frankenstein has brought the dead Elizabeth back to life, he takes her in his arms and tries to dance with her. While he is dancing, music from an earlier dance scene returns, and flashes of the dance that the couple has previously shared are spliced in, effectively showing us how mad and pathetic Frankenstein has become. Additionally, Branagh, while telling a story that is tragic and, in many ways, intellectual, isn’t afraid to let this film's horror shine through. When the Creature jumps on to Elizabeth and menacingly tells her “Don’t bother to scream,” and then rips her heart out, we see it in all its gory glory. Branagh recognizes that this is a horror story, and doesn’t hesitate to show that to us.
While this film has a solid cast, quality direction, and an intelligent, well-written story, in the end, it feels a bit hollow failing to connect emotionally with the audience. The film seems removed from its characters, failing to evoke any kind of emotional attachment, despite exploring some genuinely disturbing and thought-provoking themes. Most notably, we are never truly made to truly identify with Frankenstein. We don’t care very much what happens to Frankenstein because we don’t identify with him. His character is far too mercurial, jumping from one mood to the next, with little time for understanding. The only constant to his character is a lack of concern for consequences, which is not enough to form an emotional attachment. Partly because of Branagh’s performance and partly because of the script, the lack of focus distances us from Frankenstein, ruining any chance that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein could become the definitive version of Frankenstein.
Nevertheless, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a solid retelling of the classic story. It is visually effective and boasts a solid cast. Even with its flaws, it effectively presents us with an authentic adaptation of Mary Shelley's ideas and themes, making it a subtle and entertaining film.