Monday, June 5, 2017

MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN (1994) - **1/2



Rated R for horrific images
Running time: 123 min.
Release date: November 4, 1994



Here is a film that, throughout the history of Frankenstein stories on the big screen, that has come the closest to the original story written by Mary Shelley. Granted, there are still some liberties to be taken for reasons of adding dramatic effect, but the crux of the original tale is the bulk of this adaptation. Staying as close to the original story as it does earns Mary Shelley's Frankenstein bonus points, however, a film director has the responsibility of telling this tale to an audience that balances a respect for the source material with the filmmaker's own style and skill. This is where the movie has issues.

The story opens, as it does in the original novel, with Capt. Walton's (Aidan Quinn) expedition to the North Pole hitting a snag; as in, their ship gets stuck in the ice. Along comes a man travelling through the snow and ice who has an unbelievable tale to tell. That man is Victor Frankenstein (Branagh), as he proceeds to start at the beginning of his life's tale, with something...someone...in hot pursuit of him. The bulk of the story is told in flashback, where we get the story of a young Frankenstein meeting a young girl named Elizabeth, who has been brought in by the Frankenstein family after losing her parents. Elizabeth would grow up to become the love of Victor's life. As an adult, she is played by Helena Bonham Carter, and both she and Branagh get some rather campy dialogue about being "brother and sister" (they aren't related by blood at all) and wanting to marry. Victor's mother dies giving birth to another child, who is named William. Victor vows to find a way to cheat death while going away to study medicine. This leads him to Professor Waldman, who lets it leak that he once experimented with crating life. Amidst a cholera epidemic, Frankenstein becomes obsessed with these experiments and disregards the disapproval of friends and even his love, Elizabeth. We get the requisite scenes of Frankenstein conducting his experiments in full-bore manic mode with some truly spectacular special effects to accompany the proceedings. Piecing together a being from body parts obtained through rather questionable means, Frankenstein creates life but almost immediately regrets his work. Eventually, Victor abandons his creation, thinking it to be dead amongst the piled bodies collected by the cholera epidemic. The creation is alive, however! The story shifts focus to the creature (Robert DeNiro) in his quest for learning and friendship. Various happenings lead the creature to reject man and vow revenge on Frankenstein for abandoning him. Soon after we're treated to scenes of the creature tracking Victor down at his home in Geneva, where several tragic events occur that bring everything back around to the opening in the Arctic. Following the source material is a great benefit to the film, and there is not much fault in that regard. However, Branagh has brought a loud and manic tone to a film that has way more subtleties than Branagh actually allows, almost as if he has no time for all that. It's a two hour film, so there was plenty of time to slow things down and let characters do such character-defining things as mourn the dead. But no, Branagh goes full bore through the material, with every scene at a boiling point already, rather than building any tension. There is a scene near the end of the film where Victor dances with a much-different Elizabeth that is so over-the-top, you can't help but laugh. It crosses over into campy territory here and provides an entirely different tone than Branagh was probably shooting for.

Branagh does get credit for a great visual interpretation, however. The sets and production are expansive and quite gothic. The special effects surrounding the experiments are stark and vivid, and hearken back to the Universal Frankenstein films of the 1930s. One of the things holding back Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is that in front of and behind the camera, Branagh is rather self-indulgent. He could have reigned himself in during several scenes, especially during times when the characters needed a moment to collect themselves. Even death scenes are melodramatic affairs that require bursts of energy to get through them. It's almost as if Branagh never heard of the phrase "less is more". There is a scene where Frankenstein and the Creature meet face-to-face in a cave that has some of the more compelling dialogue in the movie, but the set-up for this meeting is quite silly, with Victor having to undertake a small expedition to the mountains in order to get there.

The cast is quite accomplished with Branagh himself, Helena Bonham Carter as the love interest and Robert DeNiro as the creature. DeNiro looks almost unrecognizable under all the stitching, and actually, for a short while, becomes the most sympathetic character. He is the misunderstood monster and only wants a friend and when he is rejected, we see and feel his pain. DeNiro's performance is one of the better aspects of the film. Branagh takes the same approach in front of the camera as he does behind it, and this makes it difficult to get behind the Frankenstein character. Helena Bonham Carter provides her usual solid performance, but unfortunately she has to dance with Branagh near the end of the film in the silliest moment of the entire two hours.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein could have been a much better film if only Branagh had been able to police himself. Building tension slowly is much more effective than blowing up the screen with energy and loudness. Branagh does way too much with the material in what was otherwise a very good story. The positive aspects of the film include the special effects and the performance of Robert DeNiro. Unfortunately, those aspects get lost in all the noise and bravado and that unintentionally funny dance scene. Less is more, Mr. Branagh.

Oh, dear God! He's coming over to ask me to dance! What do I do??


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