Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

Art thou talking to thee? Robert DeNiro in "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein."

Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Screenplay by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont; based upon the novel by Mary Shelley. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, James V. Hart, John Veitch. Music by Patrick Doyle. Photographed by Roger Pratt. Edited by Andrew Marcus. Production designed by Tim Harvey. Starring Robert DeNiro, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hulce, Helena Bonham Carter, Aidan Quinn, Ian Holm, Richard Briers, John Cleese.

Let us now take a moment to talk about the “Nooooo!” You know the one I mean. It pops up all the time in movies, usually voiced by our hero after something tragic or sudden has occurred. My master has been murdered! Nooooo! My sister is marrying my mortal enemy! Nooooo! I have become my own grandfather thanks to a time paradox! Nooooo! Et cetera. The cinematic “Nooooo!” is a trope that I really hope would go away soon, because it is so difficult to take seriously anymore. It always feels like an attempt to jump-start an unimpressive dramatic beat with some borrowed mythic importance; as if the directors and writers didn’t trust that the actors could do fine without such cheap tricks. Even Darth Vader’s final scene ever put to film is punctuated by “Nooooo!” And to that I say “Nooooo!” The Simpsons lampooned the convention of “Nooooo!” several times, the pinnacle of which was when a drill instructor tutored Homer in how to be a successful bodyguard, critiquing his attempts with: “I just didn’t believe your ‘nooooo!’”

There are a lot of “Nooooo!” moments in Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (whew). And even when the word isn’t spoken, there are plenty of nods to the spirit of “Nooooo!” Doors slammed dramatically. Tables pounded without mercy. Hammy acting. Overindulgent lighting. Lots of thunder and lightning. Much of this comes with the territory when you mount a new production of Frankenstein, but what’s odd is the way Branagh’s film tries to slap two approaches together that do not fit: conceptually, it’s a subtle tragedy about a man who destroys his life in pursuit of science. On the other hand, it’s an over-the-top, gory Grand Guginol that underlines every point as if the audience is made of half-wits.

The kind of movie that repeats its lines of foreshadowing when they payoff, as if we didn’t get it and may not get it now. Or the kind of movie where the hero’s familiarity with death propels him into his studies to extend life, yet to make sure we’re clear on the motivations, he visits his mom’s grave and says “Oh, mother. You should not have died.” He’s a deep thinker, that Dr. Frankenstein. Branagh’s approach to the project aims it for an action-packed slow burn, which seems self-defeating. As a result, instead of making a pulp epic, he creates epic pulp. You could posit the film’s schizophrenia is a reflection of the pieced-together creature at the heart of the story, but I don’t know how that helps our enjoyment of it.

Branagh, one of the world’s finest Shakespearean actors and directors, was probably drawn to the story of Frankenstein because it is closer to his wheelhouse than you’d think at first glance. The passionate man who inadvertently brings about evil is an archetype at the heart of many Shakespearean tragedies, and the film’s strategy to lend equal parts sympathy to both Dr. Frankenstein and his creation is a reflection of Shakespeare’s progressive notion to attack drama from all angles. Even this film’s buried theme, that of aristocracy concealing venial secrets, is a subtext that shows up in a lot of Elizabethan and Victorian literature. Branagh is a classical artist, and here he seeks to find a fresh interpretation of a classic. Good for him.

And it almost works. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an interesting movie—so interesting, in fact, that you get frustrated when it becomes clear it has decided not to marshal its resources and finally become really good. It hews close to Mary Shelley’s novel (unlike James Whale’s iconic and famous 1931 film), comes up with some fascinating conceits, has talented actors at its disposal, and then lets us down big time. The central mistake is probably Branagh’s decision to squeeze a huge story into a two-hour runtime. As a result, the enterprise feels rushed, especially when it passes by tantalizing material that deserves more attention. Branagh can reinvent the material, but he shies away from giving it the full time it deserves, replacing substance with teeth-gnashing. It’s perhaps one of the first super-violent monster movies that is far too short.

Branagh’s desire to import everything from the Shelley’s novel, whether it belongs or not, exposes problems right away with an unconvincing shipwreck sequence in the Arctic Circle that serves as the movie’s needless framing device. Captain Walton (a campy Aidan Quinn) come across Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Branagh), and listen to his tale. We then flash back to Victor’s childhood and young adulthood in Prague as he conducts experiments and tries to extract a marriage vow out of the fragrant Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), which is trickier then it sounds since she is his adopted sister…but hey. Let’s not go there.

And then we follow Victor through his enrollment at university in Ingolstadt, where his discussions with friend Henry (Tom Hulce) unnervingly escalate from freshman-grade philosophizing to action. Frankenstein is brilliant and disrespected by most of his peers and professors, like all brilliant men in the movies are. The only person who seems to understand him is for Professor Waldman (John Cleese – no, really), a reformed mad scientist who unfortunately kept most of his notes. Together they forward the science of reanimation, Frankenstein is soon consumed by his work, steals bodies to sew together a creature, “It’s alive,” etc. And then the creature comes out, and it’s…Robert DeNiro. Yes. I mean: nooooo!

He looks like Robert DeNiro, too, thoroughly breaking with the traditions of other Frankenstein movies. This isn’t really a bad thing, in theory. I of course admire Whale’s 1931 film – it’s a classic. But there’s a major element in that film that Branagh’s version corrects, and that is to give the monster more personality. In the original movie, he is a creature of spare parts implanted with the brain of a criminal, his face the square-jawed visage that would soon decorate Halloween masks, his stride lumbering. And he’s kind of dumb. Here, the creature is more intelligent and resourceful. And more pitiable, since he’s an innocent soul born from scratch, conditioned towards evil by a society that fears and rejects him. When he learns to read and articulate his thoughts through speech, he confronts his creator with a wisdom never granted to Boris Karloff. And like all science-fiction (which Frankenstein is—face it), there is sympathy and social commentary thrown towards the sequence where the creature lives in the woods near a human family, the ultimate outsider, and returns as an expert in embittered revenge. All of these are elements from Shelley’s novel that are frequently overlooked by Frankenstein fans – many would claim Branagh has twisted the story all out of shape, when, if anything, he has restored it back to its original dimensions.

Shelley wrote in letters that she was surprised by herself when she wrote the book, but when you dig deep, it’s maybe not too surprising, as Frankenstein is very much the preeminent female story – the plight of motherhood. A man being the hero of it is just one more perversion on top of perversions; the film gives the story the touch of a rape metaphor when the monster is birthed out of vat of amniotic fluid – borrowed, of course. And then later, the creature escapes and Frankenstein abandons it and his work until it unfortunately follows him home, like a bastard son conceived in the minute’s passion of an illicit affair. The mistress is science, of course, an implication made clear in a scene where Victor must choose between marriage and furthering his work. Although many describe the Frankenstein story as a cautionary tale against the destructive nature of science, it is just as much a story of colossally bad parenting. Happy mother’s day, by the way.

There’s a lot of over-the-top acting on display here, not all of it enjoyable. For every acting moment in the film that feels genuine, there is another that hits a wrong note. I like the way Branagh treats the more operatic moments, like the birthing scene, playing his passion like a fever he needs to expel. But other times he is seriously hammy. As for DeNiro, this is not one of his best performances, in the same way that The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle is also not one of his best performances. He tries, he really does, and there’s something poignant in how DeNiro depicts the creature’s corruption of innocence. But the last half hour of the film gives too much screen time and dialogue to the monster, where in motivation he seems to resemble his Max Cady from Cape Feare more than the unwanted son of Victor Frankenstein. The supporting roles all overact, screaming and yelling at every conceivable opportunity. And of course, there are a lot more “nooooo!”s. When John Cleese of Monty Python fame shows up in your film and gives the most nuanced performance, something is seriously wrong.

Branagh’s direction is decent, when he’s not moving his camera incessantly. Early scenes don’t really acquit themselves very well, perhaps because the central location for the first twenty minutes is an unconvincing set of Frankenstein manor – plain-looking, poorly lit, and when Victor’s father comes down the alabaster steps covered in Mrs. Frankenstein’s blood, you can’t help but notice that their staircase looks brand new. When Victor sets up his lab, though, Branagh finds his groove, and later sequences involving the monster have a certain lyricism to them. And although there’s one subplot  that feels more like Pet Sematary then Frankenstein, it leads to a climax that is shot just beautifully. So it’s a mixed bag, but there are some treats. Branagh showed with this film that he had room to grow as a director, and he has taken strides forward since (his new film, a stylish take on the Marvel Comics character Thor, opened this weekend).

The screenplay, by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont is resonant. Or at least, it hints at something resonant that didn’t get translated right. Knowing the work of Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist, The Green Mile), it’s a sure bet that something got lost along the way rather than never getting picked up. There’s something primal within this material about the limits of science, the dangers of undisciplined creation. But none of this is allowed time to settle; instead, it’s on to the next set piece. I admire the efforts of Darabont, Lady and Branagh to fashion something literate out of this material. But it just doesn’t click loud enough.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein entered and exited theaters quickly – reviews were mixed, box office tepid, and now it sits on video shelves forgotten, as if the film itself had been abandoned in the woods by its maker. But there is a lot to like about it. I enjoyed much of its set design, including the university classroom where rows and rows of students spiral upwards into infinity. There is poetry in the scenes with the monster, especially when he confronts his creator and asks him the questions that Victor failed to ask himself. And parts of it are seriously creepy, like the way the film escalates Victor’s desecration of corpses, and the fate of poor Elizabeth, who really deserves better.

Yes, it gets some things wrong. It overreaches. And some of the “horrific” moments are a little too silly to be taken seriously, and I have no doubt that Branagh wants every bit of this to be taken seriously. But at the end of it all, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is simply a monster movie that wants to be more, and if it doesn’t achieve that end, at least it recognizes that more could be had. It’s an ambitious failure, and I’ll take that over regular failure any day. There’s only some things that would need to be changed for it to be very good indeed. Just a suggestion: less “Nooooo!”

GRADE: C+

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