Many and varied are the films about Frankenstein and his monster. From the creature’s first silent steps in 1910, to Boris Karloff’s classic performance and Christopher Lee in Hammer’s Gothic fairy-tale, the myth has continued to thrill and shock one generation after another. Young Frankenstein was Mel Brooks’ most affectionate spoof, and the creature has proved durable enough to survive meetings with Abbott and Costello, Andy Warhol and the Giant Devil Fish of Hiroshima. Given this history, there is no doubt he will also emerge unscathed from his encounter with Kenneth Branagh.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sticks fairly closely to Shelley’s book (and in keeping some of the philosophical discourse between creature and creator makes you realise why it was jettisoned in every other film version). But the title is less an acknowledgement of its author than a reminder that Universal still owns the copyright to plain unqualified Frankenstein. In fact, Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein might have been more apt as a title, because our Ken, as usual, co-produced, directed and starred – everything but made the tea, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he did that too.
The word that springs to mind when contemplating Branagh is “energy”. There is so much energy crackling noisily around his attic laboratory it’s a wonder the neighbours don’t complain. The camerawork is of the needlessly busy-bee variety, and Branagh himself, even in is more relaxed moments, has a physiognomy that fizzes, as though there were another dozen film projects fermenting behind it.
The problem is that compelling screen acting requires a certain blankness. Branagh is constantly expressing himself, as though playing to the back of the stalls. He is much too affable and puppyish to be convincing as a scientist so obsessed he is prepared to challenge life and death. You find yourself thinking, not “There’s Victor Frankenstein in his laboratory”, but, “Ooh look, it’s our Ken.” Compare him with supporting actors Tom Hulce, who plays his best buddy, or Aidan Quinn, as obsessive as one could wish as the Arctic explorer to whom Victor is relating his tragic tale. Simply by keeping still, they draw our attention.
This is not to say that Branagh’s performance is no fun. Naked torso all agleam, he bounds around his lab, yelling at the giant fish-kettle in which his monster is being marinaded. Ken has obviously been preparing hard for this role; quite why an 18th century science student should have gymnasium-honed abs, lats and deltoids is anyone’s guess, but it kept reminding me of a lyric from that other Frankenstein spin-off, The Rocky Horror Show: “In just seven days, I’m gonna make you a man. Oh-ho.”
The man-made man is played by Robert De Niro, and very disappointing he is too. So is the make-up; while he would never find employment as a model for Camay, the clumsy stitching and ripped-cornea lenses make him no more hideous, I daresay, than your average 18th century smallpox, syphilis or leprosy sufferer, which makes a nonsense of everyone’s fearful reactions. It rather defeats the object of the story when you start reflecting that if only the doctor had spent less time blabbering about transplants and more time brushing up on his cosmetic surgery, things might have turned out so differently.
No sooner is the De Niro creature out of his fish-kettle than he launches into a silly walk, which is not surprising as he has been given the brain of John Cleese. Cleese is one of the film’s pleasant surprises; he is almost unrecognisable and not at all funny as Victor’s demented and slightly sinister mentor. Basil Fawlty was only a few tics short of total monstrousness; perhaps Cleese would have been better cast as the creature than De Niro, who seems to have lost the manic intensity he once brought to films like Taxi Driver.
There are other compensations. Even Helena Bonham Carter-haters will enjoy a surprisingly full-blooded performance from her as Victor’s adopted sister and sweetheart. There is a keen intelligence at work in the screenplay, the themes of science and responsibility are more relevant than ever, and Branagh’s energy propels the story through its dull spots. And I think he deserves a pat on the back for exploiting Britain’s underappreciated heritage of horror rather than playing safe with Howards End Part 53.
But the biggest problem with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that, for all its grave-robbing and heart-snatching, it is simply not very frightening. My spirits sank as soon as I read that De Niro accepted the role, “because I knew that Ken was going to make more than just another horror film, that he was going to give it a deeper meaning.” It’s like Wolf and Bram Stoker’s Dracula all over again; another instance of an upmarket film-maker mistakenly thinking he can teach the schlock merchants a thing or two – and then forgetting what makes horror movies tick in the first place.