Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, 1994.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hulce and John Cleese.
Sailors embarking upon a voyage to the North Pole rescue a man travelling through the barren wastelands by himself. The man is Victor Frankenstein who begins to tell the tale of his attempt to create new life out of the bodies of the dead.
Much like Dracula, Frankenstein has been adapted to the screen such a ridiculous number of times and with such widely varying quality that it’s often difficult to know which ones to check out. While the 1931 Universal version is often regarded as the definitive big-screen account of Mary Shelley’s fable, it is far from a faithful adaptation. It wouldn’t be until 1994 that we would get a film that attempted to retell the story of the mad doctor and his monster in a way that faithfully honoured Mary Shelley’s original novel. That film would appropriately enough be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Made as a follow-up/companion piece to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein attempts to retell the original novel as faithfully as absolutely possible with many of the classic cinematic traits of the Frankenstein story being ditched as a result. This time around there are no bolt necked monsters, no hunchbacked side-kicks, no drowned children and no crazy-haired Brides.
Instead, we get possibly the bleakest and darkest adaptations of the novel to date. It’s a film which features, among many things; lynchings, cholera, fatal blood-soaked childbirths, child murder and a general feeling of misery and grimness that hang over the film as a whole, creating a suitably dark and dreary atmosphere that serves the plot well.
Director Kenneth Branagh (who also plays the title role) directs the Frankenstein story as half of a Gothic horror story and half of an 18th century period piece, with it sometimes not looking or feeling too different from one of his Shakespeare films. One scene in which characters partake in ballroom dancing feels more like I’m watching something like Pride and Prejudice more than anything.
However, it’s these scenes that allow us to a look into Frankenstein’s backstory, showing him at home with his family and friends and showing us the pain and loss that he suffers as a young man, moments which serves to cast his eventual experiments with life and death in a very different light than in previous adaptations. Revealing them as less the work of a mad scientist intent on playing God and more so the misguided actions of a grief-stricken son whose pain has driven him to commit an abominable act.
What marks Branagh’s film out from previous adaptations is that it’s a far more epic and grander affair than anything that’s seen before with the story, with it boasting large opulent sets, sweeping dizzying visuals and an overall style that feels larger than life. The pivotal moment in which the monster is brought to life is a much more action-heavy and physical display than the 1931 version, with Frankenstein running through his vast lab shirtless, shifting various contraptions (working alone it should be noted), while leaping onto the coffin containing the creature and screaming ‘LIIIIIIVE!’ in its face.
The film is also prone to being over-dramatic at times, with so many scenes of people cradling dead loved ones while screaming ‘WHYYYYY!!!’ to the heavens that it soon becomes unintentionally hilarious. The dialogue and the delivery of some scenes are also just plain awkward and unintentionally funny. Most awkward is when the monster swears revenge at his creator by screaming ‘I WILL HAVE MY REVENGE!!! FRANKENSTEIIIIIIN!!!!!’. While I might seem like I’m criticising these overdramatic qualities, it’s this grand overblown approach to the material that makes the film so much damn fun, with it possibly being the most entertaining adaptation of the novel yet.
Taking on the title role of is Kenneth Branagh himself, with the actor/director bringing his usual Shakespearean grandiosity (or hamminess) to the character. While prone to overacting, I honestly loved Branagh’s performance and how he sympathetically portrays the gradual transformation of Frankenstein from enthusiastic medical student eager to break the rules and into the iconic mad doctor who embarks upon a dreadful experiment.
While the focus of the film might be on the titular doctor, the draw is still the Monster, and this time around, in perhaps the most surprising casting choice, it is Robert De Niro takes who takes on the mantle, albeit in a fashion that is far more faithful to the novel’s depiction, with the creature being an articulate, intelligent and a much more malicious foe.
De Niro, while an odd choice, manages to portray the creature with the same air of humanity that Karloff portrayed him with, allowing the viewer to sympathise with the Monster and his lonely plight. It’s honestly quite moving to see the Monster sitting alone in the woods crying to himself after being chased away from a family he was merely trying to help. It’s when the Monster finally snaps and decides to seek his revenge that De Niro shines, turning this once tragic figure into a much darker and more violent force of nature who lives up to the moniker of “Monster”.
Given how badly received this film was upon its release (especially by screenwriter Frank Darabont who said it was ‘the best script I ever wrote and worst movie I ever saw’) I feel I might be in the minority in my opinion, but I honestly really enjoyed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The acting is hammy perfection, but the actors do tone it down when necessary and for the most part, the performances are excellent. The overall style of the film is wonderfully overblown with the camera work being so dizzying that many moments are likely to leave viewers feeling nauseous and a grand bombastic score is so fucking loud you’ll develop tinnitus. Yet, it’s this overblown style which is why I enjoyed the film so much, with it being so damn over the top that you can’t help but enjoy the ride.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a bloated overblown overdramatic, hammy masterpiece that, while obviously not the best adaptation, might just be my favourite. Check it out.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★