Looking back at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

We revisit Kenneth Branagh's operatic adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a film due critical reappraisal...

“I busied myself to think of a story which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror; one to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.”

So begins Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Kenneth Branagh’s bold, brash, semi-operatic love letter to Gothic horror.

Monologue-ridden and dramatically orchestrated, Branagh tries to underpin his crazed, creaking, two-hour tour-de-force with the spirit of Shelley herself.

Panned on Rotten Tomatoes, disregarded as little more than passable elsewhere, this film has been largely forgotten to the vestiges of time. Its quality as a movie and any sort of legacy as a theatrical release both remain dubious in the wider cinematic community. At best it was seen as a near miss and at worst it was seen as the nadir of Branagh’s otherwise stellar early career.

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Though when given the blessed tints of retrospect, those attitudes towards the film seem a little unfair.

It is due a great critical reconsideration.

With the Shelley quote above, Branagh here makes a valiant attempt to be different by being similar. After all, Shelley’s literary masterpiece is not short of cinematic adaptations. A remake, reimagining, pastiche, reboot or adaptation of her lauded magnum opus is about as common as a murder in Midsomer. Kenneth Branagh is bold however, in that he tries to underpin every experimental idea or notion that he throws at the screen with the original source. It isn’t an obvious Hollywood bastardisation or a wonky British picture; he is radical by attempting to stick to the book and away from the conventional movie-based understandings of Frankenstein.

One issue of note is Branagh himself. Kenneth Branagh may perhaps be known better to movie aficionados of my generation as a humble, chuckling screen presence on the webcam of Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode’s radio podcast, or as the cheery buffoon Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter movies. Yet to people who have followed him more closely he was previously destined for much greater recognition.

His performances throughout the ’80s in Shakespearean drama, both on screen and stage, along with his marriage to Emma Thompson during that period meant he was destined in many people’s eyes for superstardom. One of the chief critiques of the actor was that he had an awards-bait filmography, as if choreographed to put him in the contention amongst legends such as Olivier or Brando.

Though well-loved and well regarded, it is fair to say that he has not quite reached that level, even if there are some excellent directorial and acting roles on his CV. One reason is his love of genre cinema, which has had mixed results for him. Though I admire the fact he tries to make a film that is enjoyable and powerful in its own right, rather than as a movie to showcase his own acting abilities.

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The film could easily have suited those needs, and put the focus squarely on him.

Instead he shifts the focus to Shelley, and tries to engage the wider audience in a shared experience of the book, and not of his performance. Rather than art-house pretension, he uses literary quotes such as this almost as a guideline to the viewer of his own cinematic ideals. Like the hinges on Pandora’s Box, it is the structure for the chaos let out from the projector.

This is one of the many redemptive features of this delightful mess of a movie.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein also has an uncompromising score, intrusive to a fault, but enjoyably cranked up to full effect in moments of drama. It achieves this in an almost knowing way. Not as a spoof or pastiche, but in a way that it is simply aware of what it is meant to be: drama. Even lines of dialogue end on notes of background music at times almost as if they were markers for the score to begin once again.

In particular consider how the film portrays emotion when Frankenstein’s former tutor is interrogated on the role he had in reanimating life and how close he came. He says “too close” just before the music kicks in; it’s an ominous, creeping, lingering sound that warns the viewer of the nature of his practices and the dark realities the subject of immortality can bring.

Moreover, the early sequences of a weather-beaten, but otherwise unconquerably daring Captain Walden exploring the Arctic seas are accompanied with music that acts almost a cautionary alarm to the beast in the snow beyond, and the chaos that will be unfurled at the screen for the next one hundred and twenty four minutes of its running time. The music almost seems to purr in the frequent set pieces, absorbing the vivid moments of real bloodlust that frequent the film.

It is, overall, the most penetratingly loud score I can remember. It like the rest of the film lacks any sort of light touch, grace or subtlety but never before has a film score at least, in my recollections, felt so characteristic of a movie, whatever its issues.

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Amazon: Buy Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein on Blu-ray

As for the writing and depiction of the classic tale, much more has to be said. The depiction of the characters is more lucid than most other Frankenstein films, even if plenty of the excellent characterisations are obscured by the confusion that encompasses all that sets foot on screen. In a way, the previously mentioned Arctic sequence, and the wayfaring captain that spearheads it is a true metaphor for the movie.

Captain Walden is infinitely and insatiably single-minded whilst the film is driven, ambitious and desperate to showcase so many different characteristics, in an admirably cinematic fashion, though it has a lack of subtlety or awareness that prevents it from being a classic. Meanwhile, the structure Branagh hoped to create by staying true to the text is lost by the hour mark. If the film matched its ideals it would be a modern day masterpiece.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein aims at times to be terrifying, and sometimes it is, though in other cases its scares don’t work. What’s fascinating is it also endeavours to be a clear genre piece that is knowingly reverential to its forebears of the Shelley origin and within horror in general, but without being pop cultural. It borrows ideas and makes references to admittedly greater movies and tries to make a few in-jokes to book readers, even if these are lost quite easily in the whirlwind final cut that diverts the audience away from anything of such depth. Maybe this is due to the fact it also tries to be a great drama, and yet also a great piece of shlock cinema too. It attempts to balance all these ultimately conflicting ideals.

What’s more is that it endeavours to be authentic to its period, but by staying within the rules of Hollywood convention in terms of its choices of language and style. The dialogue thus comes across as shaky. Some of it is lifted straight from the book, in a way that is admirably on-message, and other sections are sympathetically kept in tone with that, and are well written. Though the more organic sections feel out of place with the rest of the picture, with some of the dialogue dated in the same years it was written in and not in an intentional wry way. This has the jarring effect of moving the viewer out of the scene, almost like looking through an out-of-focus lens. It doesn’t help that this is in particular an occurrence in the scenes of expositional dialogue, and thus the experience is enjoyable but less rewarding than it could have been.

In reality, what it mostly is, intentionally or not, is a great depiction of the decade it was produced in.

It is visually arresting, with great production values, but also cluttered, with scenes that are hard to follow and with performances and ideas that are trampled beneath the noise, and the shlock elements of blood and fire. Not to mention its pounding score. Its narrative frame is weak too, in that if it were a roof structure, it’d belong to the fabled house built on sand. Yet this, with the fortune of retrospect, can rightly be seen as a real depiction of their majority of ’90s cinema, and the ideals it had. Perhaps there is an element of simplicity to that statement, after all any decade which brings us Pulp FictionThe Shawshank Redemption and Good Will Hunting is hardly the death of narrative cinema. However, those who prized narrative in a way such as Tarantino or Darabont were a rarity.

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Branagh creates visually arresting sequences, and episodic moments of great drama. There is a lengthy list of great moments in the film but it is hard to really put them in order or remember their overall significance. Even its initial premise of staying close to text is lost, as it plays fast and loose with the source novel’s storyline once the crushing weight of the action on screen removes the necessity for proper storytelling. On the one hand it is an incoherent cluster of ideas. On the other, it is a glowing symbol of the ’90s, a decade of confused, mixed ambitions obscured and closeted beneath sharp ideas, frenzied drama and vivid imagination.

Take his direction in the third act, in a particularly ghoulish scene involving fire which is visually stunning, emotionally powerful but confusingly directed to the point it is difficult to follow, while the confusing brambled path that leads us there means the audience is too disorientated to take note of its excellence.

I feel inclined to forgive a film for attempting so much in such a constrained running time. The reality is that the film is unclear and confused in its final version, a slightly faulty product when it finally falls off the creative production line, because it has too many ideas. While the themes of the movie sometimes coalesce or at least happily co-exist on occasion, largely speaking they collide with each other, often in a jarring fashion reminiscent to a four-year-old playing with an errant set of cymbals.

The film’s lack of clarity and confusion, however, is not out of blandness, as it is a risk-taking film, in which its failures are a consequence of how many interesting and arresting ideas and ambitions it tries to fulfill. Every concept is hit and miss in its execution. Victor Frankenstein’s worthy abode looks equally grand and Gothic but is also awkwardly similar (at least from an interior perspective) to the manor house used in the Backstreet Boys’ Backstreet’s Back music video.

Though with each criticism I make, I am reminded of its atoning features. The last and most important to name is the performance of the stellar cast that accompanies it. Often big casts with such an array of notable names tend to have the ability to underwhelm. However, the reputable actors and actresses showcased in the film, are more than just a draw for the poster. They are casting choices that complement the film. Sure, some of the characters get mired in the overall drama, which as mentioned before is delightfully unhinged to a fault, however, none of this is a fault of the cast themselves, who all bring their A-game.

John Cleese, in particular, stands out as the harbinger of human mortality and our very own limitations. His depiction of Professor Waldman, the intellectual maverick and pioneer of creating human life, is a haunting one. Frankenstein’s tutor has seldom been so gruff, yet so three-dimensional, and so memorable. Robert De Niro works well to breathe real humanity but also fearsome vengeance and bitterness into the Frankenstein creature. In all honesty, the design of the Frankenstein Monster is something of a disappointment, but De Niro does well to create consistent interest from his dialogue when it veers from profound to emotionally piecemeal.

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Meanwhile, other actors play out types and caricatures in a way fitting for the genre, such as Tom Hulce the timid sidekick, Helena Bonham Carter as the dutiful love and wife of Frankenstein, and the aforementioned Captain Walden played by Aiden Quinn who is appropriately ruthless. All rests, however, on Branagh, and his robust thespian performance which is solid. Not spectacular, but his moments of regret or sorrow offer the only quiet relief in the film.

In fact, as one looks at this movie with need of a final summarising verdict, the phrase “When in Rome” springs to mind. After all, as the saying goes “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” can easily be altered to “When in the ’90s, do what the ’90s did to cinema.”

This film is all over the place but is all the more enjoyable for it.