Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Saturday, October 22, 2016

So You Want To Conquer Death?

With Hallowe'en coming, I thought I would review three films appropriate for this time of year. This is the first.

“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.” ~ The Creature

“There was something at work in my soul which I do not understand.” ~ Victor Frankenstein

“Lives come and go. If we succeed, our names will live on forever. I will be hailed as the benefactor of our species.” ~ Captain Walton

"I'm here to become a mere doctor. I'm told that has something to do with healing the sick, which is a pity, really, because I find sick people rather revolting." ~ Henry Clerval

“I’m frightened that if I tell you the truth, I’ll lose you.” ~ Victor Frankenstein 
“You’ll lose me if you don’t.” ~ Elizabeth

In 1994, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein came to theatres, as something of a companion film to the earlier Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The first film had been directed by Francis Ford Coppolla with a screenplay by James V. Hart, and both men were producers for this adaptation of Shelley’s classic horror novel. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, who starred as the overly ambitious scientist trying to conquer death by creating life, the film is overwrought and operatic at times, but also faithful to the source material, presenting a different take on the monster and the man who created him.

The film travels back and forth in time, much of it as an extended flashback, a story told in 1794 by a depleted Victor Frankenstein (Branagh) to Robert Walden (Aidan Quinn), a ship’s captain in the Arctic obsessed with reaching the North Pole. He reveals his tumultuous history, growing up as the son of the Baron Frankenstein (Ian Holm) and his wife Caroline (Cherie Lunghi), along with the young girl they took in when he was a child, Elizabeth, who grew to be the woman he loved (Helena Bonham Carter). The death of his mother in childbirth becomes the great shattering blow for the young Frankenstein. He vows that no one ever need die.

At medical school, Victor makes friends with a classmate, Henry Clerval (Tom Hulce), challenges his professors, including Professor Waldman (John Cleese), who harbours his own murky secrets about experiments in life and death. Victor begins to conduct his own experiments, heedless of the consequences, determined to cheat death by creating life. Assembling his creation by stitching together body parts, he brings it to life, but finds it to be a failure, renouncing the course of action he took. His creation (Robert De Niro), however, has other ideas.

The screenplay by Frank Darabont and Steph Lady closely adapts the novel (though Darabont himself has stated his own issues with the finished product). It weaves together themes like madness, selfishness, obsession, ambition, the meaning of existence, and the consequences of actions- or disregard for consequences- all of which run deeply through Shelley’s narrative, which is one of the reasons it resonates so deeply as a classic. Including the framing device of Captain Walton’s presence as a bookend for the beginning and ending of the film was something that hadn’t been done before- the character appears in the book, but not the various movies. It gives a different structure to the film and different nuances than earlier versions.

The story also presents the creature in a different way. He’s been presented in films as a sad wretch or a killing machine (and truthfully those can be seen here), but the script gives the creature depth, showing him as a new life trying to understand his place in the world, and driven to destruction because he’s been rejected by the world. As time goes on, the creature shows himself to be a mixture of intelligence and puzzlement, scarred by a horrible appearance and capable of profound thought. His relationship with his creator is a contrast- Victor fears what he created but also is capable of pity for him, while the creature both hates the man who rejected him but also views him as a father.

Branagh’s directing and cinematographic style throughout the film tends to be grand, dramatic, over the top, and frantic at times, perhaps best expressed in the creation sequence, with rapid edits, swooping camera shots, and Gothic set pieces. The film has an operatic quality, perhaps to the point where we wonder if the film itself has become something of a monster of the director’s creation. And yet the film is also rooted deeply in horror, as it should be. Branagh effectively brings to life an eighteenth century setting in terms of the locations chosen for filming- the Frankenstein manor feels like quite a grand place. The same applies to the costuming and props the crew contribute to the film, giving an authenticity to the film. Even the machinery Frankenstein uses feels plausible for the era.

And the look of the creature, essential to the story, is well rendered through make up and prosthetics- De Niro looks stitched together and scarred, limping along, as his legs are uneven; he does look like a nightmare. The film got an Oscar nomination for its makeup effects, and that’s well deserved. The score by Branagh’s frequent collaborator Patrick Doyle matches the mood of the film: occasionally intimate, but often Gothic, brooding, and operatic, rising to the point of nightmarish at times.

The cast is well chosen. Ian Holm, who had worked with Branagh before, is well cast as Baron Frankenstein, a wise and kind man, the patriarch of his family. Cherie Lunghi plays his wife- at least until her death early on in the story, and they make a believable, grounded couple; the viewer might wonder what Victor might have turned out to be like had his mother lived. Would Victor have ended up following his dark obsession without heed of the consequences?

John Cleese, who’s known as a comedic actor, instead plays the professor Waldman with gravity and seriousness, no trace of the wink in the eye that you’d expect of the actor. Tom Hulce takes what could be a cliché character and works well with it. Henry is loyal to a fault, an intelligent man who’s something of a bumbler at times. He befriends Victor early on, stays friends with him, and in fact acts as a voice of conscience to him. Even if Victor isn’t heeding Henry’s warnings of the course he’s chosen- Victor listens too often only to his obsessions- that voice is needed, and Hulce brings that across through the film.

Aidan Quinn’s presence at the beginning and ending of the film, providing a framework for the story, restores Shelley’s narrative flow from the book, and his character provides a counter balance to Victor’s obsessions. When we first meet Captain Walton, we see a man driven by ambition to make his place in history, so much so that he’s disregarding the discontent of his crew, all of whom are worried about being trapped in Arctic ice and their prospects of reaching home again. After hearing Victor’s story, and seeing with his own eyes the creature that was the result of his obsession, Walton is able to do what Victor could not- turn back from his ambitions before it’s too late. He’s humbled by what he sees, takes lessons to heart, and treats the creature with sympathy, treating him as a human being, something that the creature has rarely experienced. It’s a good touch for the character, and the actor conveys that personal shift- from obsession to epiphany- in the right way.

Helena Bonham Carter is well cast as Elizabeth. The character is a mix of seriousness, spirit, and enjoying life. There is intelligence, life, and energy in her, in a way that you might not expect out of a woman in the 18th century (a nod to the author herself). Carter’s performance gives Elizabeth depth and makes her complete in and of herself. That shows itself in how she deals with Victor- the romantic bond is certainly believable, but she is also able to give Victor enough of an ultimatum to pull him back from the edge. And where she ends up by film’s end shows another side of the theme of consequences to actions- her choice demonstrates to Victor that disregarding consequences only ends in destruction.

De Niro has the strongest performance of the cast as the Creature. He first appears as a criminal about to be executed, but spends most of the film as what is supposed to be a monster, and yet turns out to be a mix of terror, pathos, and ultimately humanity. The Creature comes into a world not knowing where he belongs, finds himself driven out by society, and out into the wilderness. Gradually his intelligence asserts itself and he learns how to read and speak, but his fleeting encounters with humanity tend to end badly. The audience can feel for him- and does when we see his pain, both physical and emotional. De Niro conveys that strongly, as well as the sense that the Creature is ashamed of his appearance. When he is finally drawn back to the life of his creator, we see him as something of an intellectual equal to Victor, capable of asking deeply philosophical questions- the question as to if he has a soul certainly is something that resonates deeply. De Niro plays the role as a mix of pity and rage, driven by revenge over his rejection by the world. Ultimately, however, the rage is spent, and his final act is one of compassion and humanity- which makes the character all the more compelling.

Branagh’s take on Victor matches the film itself- Gothic and over the top at times. His best work is opposite De Niro and Carter- especially a conversation Victor and the Creature have amid an ice field in which Victor is trying to make amends. It’s a quiet moment in a film that’s often frantic, and yet it’s one of the best scenes in the film, two master actors in very different positions having a philosophical discussion. The character though is inherently selfish- brilliant but obsessed with his goal to the point of shutting out everything else. At a pivotal moment late in the film, he asks not “are you okay”, but to “say my name”, a telling sign of his selfishness. Victor is so bound in his ambitions and his experiments that he fails to take into account the consequences of his actions- which is one of the things that makes the character and book so compelling. It’s the pursuit of knowledge without taking everything into consideration that continues to make it a classic. Instead Branagh’s Victor learns the lessons far too late of what his obsessions have cost him. It’s only after everything he’s valued has been destroyed and taken from him that Victor understands the penalty of ambition.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein does follow the book closely, for the most part, and strongly delves into the themes. Two centuries plus on, the book remains a classic because it asks difficult questions, profound questions that challenge us. In a world with cloned sheep and the acceleration of artificial intelligence, we would be wise to heed its lessons. This film adaptation captures the era well, featuring strong performances in a narrative that does go over the top and completely operatic in its scope at times, but presents the characters with depth and humanity- especially a vengeful Creature who has far more empathy than his creator could have imagined.


  1. I can imagine DeNiro-as a compelling and truly frightening creature. Funny, I read this book of Shelly's several times but steer away from the film versions. Your review is excellent!

  2. Hmm, I'm not sure I would like DeNiro in this. He just doesn't fit the image I have in my head from the book.

    1. But his performance ends up very much fitting the book. It's a good one.

  3. I'm reading backwards, so NOW your posts themes make sense!


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