Tonight we focus on Kenneth Branagh’s contribution to the myth of the Monster known as MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN. Made in the wake of the very successful DRACULA remake by Francis Ford Coppola, Branagh’s adaptation of the Shelley novel is an ambitious one. It reaches for the tale as it was originally told, it struggles to find the emotional core of the Creator and the Creation.
Considering that the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his Monster has been around for more than 170 years, mounting yet another screen version seems like trouble.
"The territory has been covered many, many times," acknowledges the filmmaker, 33. "The black and white melodramatic versions have been done. The gory, gory versions, the suspense versions, the comic ver sions: They have all been done. I wanted to make the romantic, cinematic version. That's why I felt that sweeping camera movements were required. I wanted to give people a cinematic experience full of big ideas, vibrant colors, big landscapes.
"I wanted to see people against large mountains and lakes, almost as if I were telling a fairy tale, with Victor and Elizabeth as Hansel and Gretel. I wanted that big, blue ballroom and a long, sweeping staircase. I wanted Victor's home to be lovely but also to be a place that had a dark side, just like in a fairy tale."
And it does have that dark side--especially considering the words by Mary Shelley that open the film:
“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.”
The film opens on Aidan Quinn as Captain Robet Walton commanding a ship that has become icebound in the arctic as he attempts to find a route to the North Pole. They are attempting to break free when they begin to hear monsterous cries in the darkness and see the approach of a man. That man is Victor Frankenstein and he tells his tale to the Captain as the storm and Creature draw near.
The tale within a tale begins with the adoption of Elizabeth (played by Helena Bonham Carter) when she was, perhaps five, into the Frankenstein family as her parents died of the scarlet fever. Cut to a fifteen years later and Victor confesses his love for Elizabeth and asks for her hand in marraige. She agrees, but only after Victor is to go to University and she has time to prepare the Frankenstein estate for his return and their family.
Before all this, Victor’s mother has died a tragic death in childbirth and he has sworn to end this thing that has happened to her. He swears to conquer death itself.
His studies that deal with alchemy make him unpopular with some teachers, but find him kinship with Henry Clerval (Tom Hulce) and a mentor in Professor Waldman (John Cleese). Victor believes that the only way to cheat death is to birth new life. Waldman tells Victor that his theory is flawed, that he has experimented with such ideas and the result was an abomination.
Waldman is killed by a patient, soon thereafter and Victor seeks out all of Waldman’s research, incorporating it into his own experiment. He even includes Waldman’s brain and the body of a murderer into his creation. Late one night, Victor finally succeeds in giving his own creation life, but is repulsed by it and renounces his experiments.
Thus the tale begins and the tragedy unfolds...
Robert DeNiro’s Monster is one of massive scars and stitches, a bald head a stout build and cunning intelligence. More true to Shelley’s creation and yet, more creepy and less sympathetic. His cruelty seems more by intent than by ignorance. This Monster knows selfishness, cruelty and all of the darker nature of man, because he has known these things more than the other side of our nature.
The film disappointed at the box office and was moderately a critical success. It has very strong visuals, but I think I agree with part of Roger Ebert’s review that the film was too frantic and manic to allow for the full dramatic effect of the core moments register. To me, it seems this was, in part, an effort to recreate the Hammer feel of filmmaking as the plot rushes forward and the drama is high.
Not the best FRANKENSTEIN film, but a very worthy one to contribute to the legend, Branagh in the learning process of telling a tale of the fantastic.
FIVE FRANKENSTEIN FUN FACTS:
- De Niro studied stroke victims to get a feel for one struggling to speak.
- Branagh insisted that everyone refer to DeNiro’s character as “The Sharp-Featured Man” as he was identified in the credits.
- Producer Francis Ford Coppola originally planned to direct thie film as a companion piece to DRACULA, but stepped back to allow Kenneth Branagh the job. Coppola later regretted the decision after disagreements with Branagh.
- After viewing a rough cut, Coppola insisted on cutting the first half hour of the film. When Branagh refused, Coppola publicly denounced the film.
- This film contains several references to previous FRANKENSTEIN films, such as Thomas Ediston’s, James Whale’s, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Curse of Frankenstein, Frankenstein: The True Story, Terror of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Unbound.
And now for your postage needs: