When Victor Frankenstein rejects the artificial man he just created, the monster escapes and later swears revenge.
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Mary Shelley’s 1817 novel “Frankenstein” has been adapted countless times, and even today, it’s the 1931 James Whale classic that remains the most influential. It’s the inspiration for the still-popular cartoonish green Frankenstein creature, sporting a flat-top head and bolts in his neck. Yet when you look at the original novel, you realize just how many liberties Whale took with the story. That’s fine, of course; it isn’t the filmmaker’s job to slavishly recreate every detail of the source material, but to adapt it in the most effective way possible. Still, it’s a bit of a letdown when you realize that Whale toned down the tragedy and scrapped the idea of an articulate creature.
Enter the 1994 production “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh. With the help of screenwriters Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, Branagh takes Shelley’s original novel and expands upon it. The changes made here actually make a bit more sense than those made in other versions. The original novel is quite lean as far as character development goes, and although we all think of the lightning rig employed in previous versions, the truth is that Shelley never explained how Frankenstein brought his creation to life. Branagh’s film explores the characters’ relationships and even comes up with a unique alternative method for reanimating the creature (amniotic fluid and electric eels – who would’ve thought?).
As the Creature, Robert De Niro takes a different approach than what the audience might be used to, but it’s to the benefit of the character. The Creature is intelligent and even philosophical, which makes De Niro’s interpretation closer to Shelley’s original concept. This doesn’t diminish Boris Karloff’s immortal performance as Frankenstein’s Creature; it’s iconic for a reason. In fact, it was actually better in a way that Karloff’s character didn’t understand right from wrong. That made his violent behaviour easier to justify, whereas De Niro’s version of the Creature is fully aware of his cruelty. Still, it’s nice to see that the filmmakers haven’t taken the “misunderstood” idea too far. Even if De Niro’s portrayal elicits our sympathy, he still makes the Creature menacing and at times shockingly brutal.
Helena Bonham Carter is brilliant as Elizabeth, Victor’s love interest. That is, she’s wonderful throughout, but in her final scenes, Carter delivers the finest moments in the entire film. She proves she’s one of those performers who can say volumes with their eyes, and what Carter says with her eyes will break your heart.
Tom Hulce provides some much-needed comic relief, but in a story this dark, that doesn’t exactly mean slapstick hilarity. As Henry Clerval, a fellow medical student Victor meets at university, Hulce is a sensible, very likable presence. When it comes to Victor and his experiements, Henry is a suitable representation of the audience: he admires Victor’s motives, but can’t condone what he does.
Trevyn McDowall makes an endearing Justine Moritz, a character who has been fleshed out considerably for this adaptation. McDowall perfectly captures the sadness of a girl suffering from unrequited love, and while her fate in the book was dark, here it’s heart-wrenching.
Aidan Quinn has a small but significant role as Captain Robert Walton, the explorer to whom Frankenstein relates his story. Walton is more than willing to die for the chance to go down in history, but he gains some perspective after hearing how Frankenstein’s own ambitions ended in tragedy.
The cast list boasts an array of reliable British character actors, all of whom lend excellent support to the main stars. Ian Holm plays Baron Frankenstein, while Richard Briers is touching as a blind man who shows the Creature his first – and only – glimpse of kindness. Celia Imrie is sympathetic in the role of Justine’s mother, while ex-Python John Cleese appears as Victor’s decidedly unfunny mentor.
The makeup team on “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” does remarkable work, in that the Creature is more realistic than ever before. While the Jack Pierce makeup in James Whale’s film is as admirable as Karloff’s performance, it’s refreshing to see a
Creature who really looks like he was cobbled together from dead bodies. It’s also interesting to see the two different stages of his makeup. Although the stitches are fresh to begin with, we see the Creature’s incisions turn into scars, and actually, the fact that he’s healing shows he’s a living being rather than just a reanimated corpse. This Creature isn’t as monstrous as other incarnations, but he has a kind of believable ugliness that works for this interpretation. Without giving too much away, another character undergoes the same treatment as the Creature, and represents an even more disturbingly slapdash process of resurrection.
Patrick Doyle’s score is powerful, fitting in perfectly with the grandiose tone of the movie. Yet amidst all the thundering brass, Doyle also gives Victor and Elizabeth an absolutely exquisite love theme. Whenever those strings start up, the audience remembers that Victor’s seemingly lunatic experiments are all for the sake of one belief: that people deserve to live out their lives in the company of those they love.
Overall, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is an ambitious adaptation of a novel that has been giving readers nightmares for nearly two centuries. Some may object to its over-the-top style, but after all, it’s a dramatic story that deserves to be told in a dramatic way. At one point, the Creature tells Frankenstein, “I have love in me the likes of which you cannot imagine, and rage the likes of which you would not believe.” Kenneth Branagh’s film demonstrates this perfectly, and is just as violent and passionate as its Creature. It serves as a warning about tangling with forces we are not meant to control, and what we stand to lose if we do.