Being Film #11 in Hail Horror 2008
Two years after the bloody, beautiful mess that was BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, Francis Ford Coppola moved into the producer's chair for MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN, handing the directing reigns over to Kenneth Brannagh, who had great success with his two previous Shakespeare adaptations, HENRY V and MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. So I imagine there was a certain logic to letting him tackle Shelley's horror masterpiece, a novel about the search to become our own God, and the folly of reaching for the Eternal without owning up to the responsibility that comes with it.
Boasting an enormous cast, including Robert DeNiro as the creature, and taking a grand, operatic cue from Coppola's DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN strangely suffers from the same points that brought Brannagh's Shakespeare adaptations to such vibrant life. It's odd that what worked for for one didn't when applied to something seemingly so similar, but the in-your-face score reeks of melodrama, and an over-the-top, dandified performance by Brannagh as Victor Frankenstein, who brought such passion in his earlier roles, here strives for tortured but instead falls to slightly foppish and silly.
The screenplay follows the events of the novel very closely. It opens on the ice, as a group of explorers frozen in the Arctic comes across the world's most famous mad scientist, pulling himself along on a makeshift sled as a fearsome howl rages behind him in pursuit:
Echoing the past, Brannagh uses some of the famous images and scenes from films like the James Whale FRANKENSTEIN and even some of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN with it's almost surreal locations, but everything is shot with an eye to being over-dramatic: scenes are filmed at odd angles and oftentimes use deep focus or fish eye lenses for effect, actors emote to the point of jumping out of the frame, and the score by Patrick Doyle screams each feeling and theme instead of implying them. Nuance is in short supply, and each beat of the movie feels like it bludgeons you on the head when sometimes a tap would suffice.
But probably the most laughable moment comes during the famous "birthing" scene, where Victor finally brings his creation to life. Stripped down and greased up, Brannagh jumps and prances about the lab, flexing his muscles at every opportunity and essentially creating a moment of hilarity instead of solemnity. The one moment of true levity, when Victor continuously slips in the amniotic fluid that's spilled all over the floor as he tries to help up his creation, provides a more truthful moment that the "It's Alive!" sequence that came before it. The creation of the monster is the point where Victor marks his own destruction, but the effect here is just a chance to show off where a majority of the film's budget went. Allow the glory of YouTube to take you there:
If anything really works in FRANKENSTEIN, it's DeNiro's portrayal of the Monster. Although it won't cause anyone to forget Boris Karloff's iconic performance, it does come closer to mirroring the book than any other film adaptation I've seen. This is still a period when DeNiro was completely immersing himself in his roles, and he brings a quiet dignity to the Monster, even when he's at his most destructive. It helps that Frankenstein immediately becomes an utter prick as soon as he realizes the Monster is alive, screaming and running away, instantly abandoning the Monster to his own devices. Once the story becomes his, FRANKENSTEIN moves along at a much better clip. At its heart FRANKENSTEIN is about the doctor's folly, and the question of responsibility to what he's created. And DeNiro's Monster uses the eloquence of a Shakespearean character to drive this point over and over again to Victor throughout the movie. It's a heart breaking performance, and one that should have gotten more credit at the time.
When these scenes are occurring, Brannagh finds the soul of the film, and everything begins to work. It's here that his eye and ear for the theatrical really work for the film instead of against it. It's jut too bad there isn't more substance in the rest of the movie.