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Movie Review: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

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Kenneth Branagh's 1994 remake of the James Whale 1931 horror classic, Frankenstein, could have been a remarkable film. It has a fine cast of top shelf actors, led by Branagh himself as the obsessive creator and Robert De Niro as the monster. Helena Bonham Carter plays Elizabeth, the deluded scientist's beloved. Ian Holm, Tom Hulce, John Cleese, and Aidan Quinn round out the cast. It has the laudable aim of producing an adaptation that comes closer to the novel that Mary Shelley actually wrote than does the Whale film. It has access to a whole new world of special effects and screen makeup. It has some beautiful scenery shot in gorgeous Technicolor. Above all, it has a modern mythic tale of science gone wild going for it.

Yet with all this, the film never really delivers the goods. It's not that it's bad. It has its good moments, some good performances, a memorable touch or two. But as a whole, it falls short. It is a horror film that never really delivers on the fright. Perhaps because the story is so well known, perhaps because the monster has become a kind of benign icon who sells cereal and does the soft shoe, perhaps … well, whatever the reason, if you're looking for thrills and chills, you're not likely to find it in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. De Niro's monster is scarred and repellent, but he is still recognizably human. His murderous acts are not always depicted, and the one act that is shown on screen isn't really defined until it is over. Indeed the scenes of the birth of his brother are perhaps more detailed, perhaps more horrifying.

Some of this is owed to the attempt to get back to the novel. The monster in Mary Shelley's book is in some sense more sinned against than sinning, at least at the start. He looks so horrible because his creator was careless in his creation; Frankenstein is an imperfect artist/scientist. He is betrayed by his creator. Victor is repulsed by him when he sees life begin to awaken in him. The monster seeks companionship, but no one can stand to look at him. He wants Frankenstein to create a female for him so that he will have someone like himself, but Frankenstein can't bring himself to complete the task. Much of this is mirrored in the film in one way or another, and it does have the effect of mitigating the audience reaction to the monster, as indeed it does in the book.

Branagh doesn't stick to everything in Shelley's book. The whole episode of the creation of the female, for example, is developed differently. In the film, Elizabeth, Victor's wife, is killed by the monster, and Victor tries to resurrect her for himself. Then, the monster challenges him for the creation. The resurrected Elizabeth then kills herself in disgust at what she has now become. In the book, the monster kills Elizabeth as revenge after Frankenstein destroys the female he is creating to be the monster's consort.

Also, Branagh's elaborate scenario for the making of the monster owes a great deal more to James Whale than it does to Mary Shelley. Mary Shelley has very little to say about how the monster was made and life created, possibly because she hadn't the slightest idea how to present a convincing explanation. All the thunder and lightning and electricity that animates Branagh's creation scene comes right out of the Whale tradition. He adds a touch of acupuncture to put his own signature on it, but whatever it is, it's not Mary Shelley.

Of course, it is wrong to quibble over the fact that the movie differs from the novel, even though coming closer to the novel is obviously one of its aims. After all a movie is not a novel. It couldn't possible do everything the novel does. Besides, it does include much of the novel's frame as Frankenstein tells his story to Robert Walton (Aidan Quinn), the obsessed explorer who is a foil character to the scientist in the book. It does include the whole episode of Justine and the death of Frankenstein's little brother. It even makes sure that Frankenstein has the right first name. How much can one ask for?

The real problem with the film is the acting. Most of the actors chew the scenery without mercy. Branagh himself is the main offender. His performance is pure camp; there isn't a melodramatic string he isn't willing to pull. And the rest of the cast takes its cue from him. In fact the only major performance that doesn't go over the top is the one where it would be most justified: De Niro's monster. More often than not, De Niro plays in a minor key. His monster is almost subdued, especially set against the turmoil of Branagh and Bonham Carter. John Cleese in the role of Professor Waldman, Frankenstein's mentor, is, like De Niro, somewhat less melodramatic.

If Mary Shelley's 1818 novel needed another adaptation to the screen, this wasn't it.

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