Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

The brash young actor-director Kenneth Branagh came to us steeped in the finely calibrated traditions of Shakespeare and the BBC, but he smuggled something else in with him: a hearty vibrancy that told us he wasn’t about to be a stuffy bore. He would entertain us, try on different hats, open up the great plays to the masses. Not yet thirty when his debut film, Henry V, was released, Branagh already revealed a puppyish appetite for melodramatic excess. Like Henry, Branagh was a whippersnapper whose enthusiasm and confidence made up for his perceived callowness. Well, nothing succeeds like excess, and Branagh followed it up with the enjoyably ludicrous (or ludicrously enjoyable) Dead Again, and then he followed Much Ado About Nothing with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is only ludicrous.

The same stupidity virus that infected Lawrence Kasdan (Wyatt Earp), Gus Van Sant (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues), and Rob Reiner (North) also appears to have claimed Branagh, the latest in a long line of gifted directors this year who have stepped with both feet into cow flop. This Frankenstein is hollowly energetic, a frantic aria of off-key notes. Branagh pumps up the material and lays on the cheesy mad-lab electricity; he encourages the sort of aggressive overacting that wouldn’t be offensive if the director didn’t encourage himself above all. He plays Victor Frankenstein, and he’s always fervent about something; you may fear that if you leave your seat to hit the bathroom, his eyes will burn resentful dime-sized holes in your back. Fashionably long-haired, Branagh goes shirtless during the key monster-making sequence, a detail Mary Shelley somehow overlooked. This is far from a class act, despite the credentials and hard labor of its international cast. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is largely awful, and in this case I’m reasonably sure the box office will bear me out: The storytelling is simply too fractured and thin to involve an audience.

This Frankenstein supposedly sticks closer to the novel than did previous screen versions. But just as Bram Stoker’s Dracula was really Francis Coppola’s Dracula, so Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is really Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein. Its overwrought penny-dreadfulness violates the tone of Shelley’s work, a stately meditation on death and rebirth that’s a bit of a chore to get through (I’ve tried several times). The original story is rich in melodrama, and Branagh latches onto the anecdotes that most film versions have ignored, such as the housekeeper Justine’s being hanged for the murder of Victor’s little half-brother. Branagh stages it as a raging Tale of Two Cities mob scene, complete with the poor woman’s body plummeting and then being jerked back up on the rope. I will give Branagh credit for having the sense to include the novel’s most horrifying line — “I will be with you on your wedding night.” But generally he flails so hard to keep us interested in the story that he never lets it breathe (and loses our interest that way). Trying for fidelity to Shelley’s epistolary narrative and structure, Branagh spreads out a lifeless first half hour — the movie takes forever and a day to get going — and frames the story aboard a landlocked ship, with the dying Victor telling his tragic tale to Captain Walton (Aidan Quinn). This captain, like Victor, is afflicted with hubris; he thinks he can chart a new route to the North Pole, or something along those lines. The framing sequence is actually an excuse for Branagh to outdo Moby Dick and The Bounty and every other movie featuring masts crashing to the deck.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is destined to be a camp classic, right down to the daffy finale, a Re-Animator swipe in which Victor finds another use for his dead wife/half-sister Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). This climax certainly doesn’t come from Shelley, but by then who cares? The movie is already bad; it might as well get worse in a big way. Adding to the unintentional fun is Robert De Niro, who manages a sometimes affecting performance as the Creature despite being utterly miscast. The Creature (or monster, or whatever you want to call him) isn’t as flexible an archetype as, say, Dracula, who has been successfully interpreted by such wildly disparate actors as Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, and (oh, what the hell) George Hamilton. After Boris Karloff (whose monosyllabic reading of the monster has endured even though it’s the polar opposite of Shelley’s eloquent Creature) and perhaps Peter Boyle’s comic riff on Karloff, what other actor has made the Creature his own? If you’re going to do it by the book, you need a physically imposing man who yet can take off, convincingly, into florid philosophical soliloquies on the injustice of his existence. The Creature is Man, roughly assembled and plopped down naked into a chaotic world, railing against God the Creator. For all his talent, De Niro is more comfortable handling a gun than handling Miltonian pronouncements. He’s best in his quiet, yearning moments, when he has the pathos of a roadkill Chaplin (the make-up whizzes on this movie kept busy). But when he attempts to fit his GoodFella accent around such lines as “Who are these people of whom I am composed?” you just cringe. He’s like Harvey Keitel’s Judas in The Last Temptation of Christ yelling “Yer no better than da Romans! Yer woise than dem!”

Like Victor, Kenneth Branagh puts a lot of sweat and energy into animating this stitched-up creation, but on just about every level the movie is deeply foolish. Surprisingly, the one actor who doesn’t succumb to the general histrionics is John Cleese, who, as Victor’s twisted mentor, gives what I believe is his first serious movie performance. We look at his wormy face and gaunt Victorian body and we may wonder what Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would have been like if Cleese had played the Creature. Or directed the film, or done the whole thing as an absurdist Monty Python sketch — whatever. For a few minutes, though, Cleese breaks through the static and ego to gift us with the cracked decorum and restrained madness — and above all, the spookiness — that the rest of this overamped movie sorely lacks.

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