*. Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is usually considered the most faithful film adaptation of the famous novel. I have to use the awkward double possessive though because this production is Branagh’s baby all the way. As screenwriter Frank Darabont put it: “That movie was his vision entirely. If you love that movie you can throw all your roses at Ken Branagh’s feet. If you hated it, throw your spears there too, because that was his movie.”
*. A popular paradox has it that it takes real talent to make a very bad movie. This is true if we’re talking about a special kind of very bad movie. The vast majority of forgettable (and now forgotten) Grade-Z productions of yesteryear were the product of a general lack of vision, effort, technical competence, and/or funds. But a movie like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had all of these in abundance. It’s one of those special bad movies.
*. It was primarily criticized for its manic grandiloquence and operatic qualities. Roger Ebert: “Branagh has always been a director cheerfully willing to shoot for the moon, to pump up his scenes with melodrama and hyperbole, and usually I enjoy that. . . . Here, however, faced with material that begins as lurid melodrama, he goes over the top.” Or Darabont again: “It has no patience for subtlety. It has no patience for the quiet moments. It has no patience period. It’s big and loud and blunt and rephrased by the director at every possible turn. Cumulatively, the effect was a totally different movie. I don’t know why Branagh needed to make this big, loud film . . . the material was subtle. Shelley’s book was way out there in a lot of ways, but it’s also very subtle. I don’t know why it had to be this operatic attempt at filmmaking.”
*. An irony: the classic 1931 Frankenstein was based less on Shelley’s novel than on a stage treatment that had been popular. In going back to the source, Branagh, with far greater resources than Universal, chose to make a film that was even more theatrical. It may be closer to the novel, but it’s actually less novelistic.
*. The critical assessments made by Ebert and Darabont are fair, but it’s worth remembering that Bram Stoker’s Dracula had come out just a couple of years earlier and Coppola had been praised precisely for the operatic, over-the-top theatricality of his production. So I don’t think it’s fair to say Branagh was necessarily heading in the wrong direction.
*. And to be fair I’d even say that some of his efforts pay off. Frankenstein’s attic lab looks like it was a lot of fun to design, as much in debt to Dr. Seuss as Kenneth Strickfaden. And Elizabeth’s long human torch scene is one of the best there’s been, right up there with such classic burns as the ones seen in The Thing from Another World, Westworld, and Bubba Ho-Tep (to name just a few of my favourites).
*. But then there’s all the silliness, that need to pump up every scene, if not through set design (dig that staircase!) then through a constantly twirling camera or with overhead shots that beg for a character to tilt his head back and scream at the heavens (an appeal that does not go denied).
*. I remember seeing this when it first came out and how it finally lost me with the Monster standing before the burning cottage vowing “Revenge!” (though I should add that this scene does stay pretty close to the book). This is immediately followed by an aerial shot of his trudging through an alpine landscape. It all just seemed too, too much. Not too bold, but too clichéd, both visually and dramatically.
*. Robert De Niro as the Monster (or The Creature) was a bold bit of casting. He’s given plenty to work with too, as what makes this a more faithful adaptation of Shelley than most Frankenstein movies is the fact that the Monster is so articulate and sympathetic a figure. In at least one scene the clear referent is the Elephant Man. Of course the fact that he’s taught himself to read is the silliest part of the novel as well, but I think it’s to Branagh’s and De Niro’s credit that they get us to go along with it.
*. I wasn’t sure though why the Monster had so much visible stitching. Sure he’s had a brain transplant, but why would that entail carving up his face? His head was otherwise a single unit. As is Elizabeth’s head when it is stuck on Justine’s body, and her face is all stitched up as well. Chalk it up to a design element that doesn’t stand close examination.
*. Tom Hulce seems to have arrived here just off the bus from Amadeus. Helena Bonham Carter has the period look, but doesn’t project the sexuality the role needs. John Cleese is surprisingly effective as Waldman. I think maybe because he realized he didn’t have to overplay the part in such a production.
*. Branagh himself is hard to take seriously. He embodies the shift the film makes from Romance (the cultural movement) to romance (of the men with no shirts and bodice-ripping kind). It’s the sort of hammy, artificial performance that goes with the giant, all-too-obvious studio sets. So in that sense it comes with the territory.
*. I started off calling this a very bad movie, but of a special type. In fact, it strikes me more as a very silly movie. As such, I think I actually enjoyed it a little more this time than I did twenty-five years ago. But it’s still a joke. Maybe in another twenty-five years I’ll be able to take it seriously and change my mind completely. A revolution like that takes a while.