Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hulce, Ian Holm, Aidan Quinn, John Cleese. (1994, R)
REVIEWED By Robert Faires, Fri., Nov. 11, 1994
Kenneth Branagh, resuscitator of Shakespeare onscreen, tackles the Frankenstein tale and brings that oft-abused corpse to life again with a jolt, though not the way you might expect. The film follows Francis Ford Coppola's take on another Gothic story, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and is a twin to that piece: epic, operatic, turning on the passion of a young man who's inspired by tragedy to defy nature, which sows yet more tragedy. Both take these modern myths that have grown iconic and generally dry and cold, and fire hot blood back into them. They are personal, intensely so: Dracula, a warrior who courts hell after his beloved dies; Frankenstein, a doctor who seeks life's source after his mother dies. It's a take on Frankenstein rarely seen, miles from the cool, middle-aged madmen played by Colin Clive and Peter Cushing. Branagh's Victor, hot with the passions of youth, rushes on without considering the consequences of his actions; he's no less unbalanced than other film Frankensteins, but he retains our sympathy and what he does is horrible to us because we comprehend the emotion fueling it. And comprehension is the current that gives this adaptation life. In the novel, Victor comprehends what he has done and is revulsed. More importantly, the creature he's made comprehends what he is. The havoc he wreaks is no mindless response to cruel, fire-wielding villagers but a carefully calculated revenge based on his bitterness toward the man who composed him of dead flesh, gave him life, and abandoned him. DeNiro's Creature, red and torn as raw meat, is both frightening and poignant. The actor plays him simply, drawing his emotional shadings from the figure's isolation, his painful knowledge that he is the only thing of his kind in the world. Writers Steph Lady and Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) retain much of the source's action and all of its spirit, but still make the work speak to our age. Their lines echo modern concerns, from the boundaries of medicine to epidemics even to students on athletic scholarships. The mayhem that overtakes so many versions of Frankenstein doesn't here. Through all the passion and horror runs a strong philosophical cord, questioning our ability to challenge nature, to remake it simply because we can. The film is ever reminding us there are costs to crossing frontiers, human lives, that must be considered. It is the story of, as Shelley subtitled her book, The Modern Prometheus.