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‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 04, 1994

At the crucial moment when the doctor utters the famous words “It’s alive!” in “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” he’s certainly not talking about the movie. All too faithfully adapted by Kenneth Branagh, the film is the last thing that one would expect of a contemporary highbrow version of this ageless horror classic. It is, in a word, dullsville.

Perhaps wisely, Branagh has chosen to avoid any reference to the memorable Boris Karloff “Frankenstein,” but he hasn’t come up with a vivid counterpart for it either. The production, which stars Branagh as Dr. Victor Frankenstein and Robert De Niro as his dastardly creation, is handsomely designed and sumptuously costumed. And accomplished actors—including Helena Bonham Carter, John Cleese, Ian Holm and Tom Hulce—fill every role. Even the makeup—when it needs to be—is satisfyingly horrific.

What’s missing, though, are the fundamentals—a grasp of the story’s subtext and a genuine sense of terror—and without these, the rest is essentially meaningless.

In presenting his version, Branagh gives us both more and less of what other adaptations have included. The film starts out where Shelley’s did, somewhere near the North Pole, where Captain Walton (Aidan Quinn) and his crew encounter an exhausted Victor Frankenstein, who, with his dying breath, recounts his fantastic tale. But this framing device adds nothing crucial to the story, nor do the several early scenes of young Victor’s boyhood and his adolescent absorption in his scientific studies. Only the sequence in which his doting mother (Cherie Lunghi) dies contributes anything of relevance, ostensibly supplying the psychological motive for his obsession for transforming death into life.

The tale picks up once Frankenstein arrives in Ingolstadt, where he intends to pursue his medical studies. He strikes up a friendship with a Professor Waldman (John Cleese), whose interest in the artificial generation of life encourages Frankenstein in his own experiments. While the city is plagued with cholera, Frankenstein busies himself in his lab stitching together body parts.

The birthing scene in which a shirtless Frankenstein brings his creation to life via a combination of electricity and amniotic fluid provides the only true moments of excitement. But then, Frankenstein inexplicably declares his experiment a grotesque failure and, with the unnamed offspring hanging from the rafters, unceremoniously takes to his sickbed. And because Branagh doesn’t reveal the monster to us, the sequence doesn’t have a satisfying dramatic payoff.

As a result, the subsequent unveiling of De Niro’s Creature—and the actor’s monstrous makeup—is something of an anticlimax. Branagh’s conception of both the doctor and his monster is closer to Shelley’s book than to James Whale’s mythic 1931 film version. Both characters are more human, less demonic and maladjusted, and therefore exert a much weaker hold on the imagination than the figures in Whale’s inimitable rendering.

With his washboard abs and flowing golden curls, Branagh’s mad doctor looks as if he were outfitted to pose for a calendar pictorial—it’s Fabio does Frankenstein. The doctor’s obsessions appear rather fleeting and don’t seem to run very deep; for a man in the grip of a forbidden passion, he seems too sunny and lightweight.

De Niro’s Creature could never be accused of being an upbeat kind of guy, but then again, he isn’t very scary either. More misunderstood than evil, he’s also much more talkative, and that, combined with the superficiality of Branagh’s approach, robs the beast of its primal power. We should quake at the very sight of him, and we don’t.

This is more Branagh’s failing than it is De Niro’s. Though the director moves briskly through his story, with both his characters and his camera in constant dizzy motion, the production doesn’t have the necessary Gothic energy. (Actually, Branagh seems to have confused movement with vitality.) Of even greater importance, though, there is nothing in this version of the story to plug into our subconscious. Thematically, this “ Frankenstein” is as lifeless as the hunks of flesh out of which the doctor creates his monster. It’s a horror movie without any blood in its veins.

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