The first question, I suppose, is: How faithful is this "Frankenstein" to Mary Shelley's book? And the second: Is it really very different from the other 100 "Frankensteins" that are out there?
Well, director Kenneth Branagh (with screenwriters Steph Lady and Frank Darabont) obviously attempted to be more faithful than the average "Frankenstein" flick. But, when you get right down to it . . . hey, it's just another "Frankenstein" flick," albeit with more razzle-dazzle and a bigger budget than any of the others.
Intended as a companion piece to Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (which I did not like), "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" is certainly a step up. But for some reason, Branagh has decided to push aside any instinct toward the literary fullness he demonstrated in his Shakespeare films ("Henry V," "Much Ado About Nothing") for the sake of a cinematic showpiece. And the result is yet another example of style over substance.
With his whirling camera, quick-cut editing and an odd sense of distance from the characters, along with a fairly constant state of frenzy and loads of blood and gore, this is horror as headache.
It's hard to imagine Oliver Stone handling it any more wildly.
Branagh stars as Victor Frankenstein, attempting to play him as a mixture of naive, idealistic and tortured. When his mother dies in childbirth, Victor mourns her by yearning and later, vowing to stop death dead in its tracks . . . so to speak.
He gets his opportunity when he apprentices at medical school under Professor Wadman (a subdued, and decidedly non-comic John Cleese), who has been censured for the kind of experiments that Victor would like to continue. His best friend Henry (Tom Hulce) begs him to forget about it.
Eventually, Victor takes the body of a hanged killer (Robert De Niro), attempting to improve him with various, assorted body parts. And in the film's most wildly frenetic montage, he creates his "monster." "It's alive," he shudders, and, after they play slip-and-slide in a room full of amniotic fluid, almost immediately tries to destroy his creation.
But the monster escapes, of course, and wreaks havoc on the countryside. But in this case, he is as pitiable as he is horrifying, becoming self-educated, attempting to befriend a blind man and his family in the forest and eventually plotting revenge on Frankenstein.
Meanwhile, Victor's future wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), who is also his adopted sister, tries to reason with him and she ultimately becomes the monster's chief victim. And in a weird twist that is more "Frankenhooker" than Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," Victor attempts to bring her back. (Cue a replay of the frenzied laboratory scene.)
The script is filled with odd dialogue and screwy sensibilities, while the lavish set design and costumes detail the period meticulously. And Frankenstein's laboratory, while echoing older movies, has its own sense of wonder about it.
It's an odd and uneasy mix, but the look of the film is dazzling and the performances are all first-rate. And best of all is De Niro, whose wonderful turn at making the monster both sympathetic and horrible is as complex and touching as this character gets.
Fans will no doubt feel compelled to see this movie, and maybe the superficial, MTV style will provide more box-office appeal than a more cerebral approach would. But when it was over, I couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing.
"Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" is rated R for considerable violence and gore, with nudity, brief sex and mild profanity.
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