Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)

Kenneth Branagh struggles to bring Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to life

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Robert De Niro (The Creature), Kenneth Branagh (Victor Frankenstein), Tom Hulce (Henry Clerval), Helena Bonham Carter (Elizabeth), Ian Holm (Baron Frankenstein), John Cleese (Professor Waldman), Aidan Quinn (Captain Robert Walton), Richard Briers (Grandfather), Robert Hardy (Professor Krempe), Trevyn McDowell (Justine Moritz), Celia Imrie (Mrs Mortiz), Cherie Lunghi (Caroline Frankenstein)

In 1994 Kenneth Branagh was the heir of Laurence Olivier: a man who could act, direct and produce, who never had a false step, whose every film was a success. In other words he was ripe for a kicking, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was the stick used to beat him. It was practically the founding text of “Branagh-bashing”, for a time one of the favourite sports of the British press.

Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) grows up obsessed with defeating death, traumatised by the death of his mother. Training as a doctor in Vienna, after the murder of his mentor Professor Waldmann (an effectively serious John Cleese), he uses the body of the murderer to create the Creature (Robert De Niro) – but, horrified by what he has created, he flees home to Geneva. While the Creature comes to terms with being an outcast, Victor marries his sweetheart Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) – only for her to become a target when the Creature vows revenge.

Okay the good stuff about this film: the production design is terrific, the Frankenstein house in particular a marvellous set. It’s also a very faithful adaptation, pretty much following the book (apart from a late, horribly melodramatic “Bride of Frankenstein” sequence). Branagh gets some affecting moments out of the film, particularly in the calmer moments – De Niro gives an interesting performance and the retention of the Walton framing device in the Arctic is well done. There is a good film in here. But it’s buried completely under the overblown shouting, swooping cameras and booming music that covers the rest of the film.

Contrary to his reputation as a purveyor of intricate Shakespeare adaptations, Branagh has always been a lover of big movies, who brings an operatic intensity to cinema. The problem is he goes too far here. This is at times so ridiculously overblown and frenetic in its tempo, you start to think Branagh is trying too hard, desperate to make a big budget smash. Wanting to make a big, gory, gothic horror film, he dials everything up to eleven, and the sturm und drang eventually becomes a tale full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Interestingly, this intensity is particularly overbearing in the Frankenstein scenes, rather than those focusing on the Creature. Several scenes are filmed with the camera swooping round in circles over long intense takes, while the score thunders away. This principally happens in scenes of high emotion – the deaths of Frankenstein’s mother and his mentor Waldmann are both operatically overblown (in the latter Branagh literally cranes up and screams “No!”). Eventually it all becomes too much. You are crying out for everyone to take a breath and just deliver a line calmly.

Now I can see what Branagh is doing here. He’s looking to emulate the high-Gothic semi-camp of 1930s horror films. That’s the charitable explanation for why he spends the entire Creature-birthing scene running round topless (he must have spent ages on that chest), with Patrick Doyle’s score booming away, while the camera swoops and sweeps around him. Branagh is partly channelling Colin Clive’s mad scientist from James Whale (he even bellows “Live!” in pure Clive style twice in the film), but by going for overwhelming bombast in his performance, he misses out on making the character relatable. Now Victor is a selfish asshole of course, but we should at least relate to him a little bit: I’m not sure many people can in this film.

It’s a real shame because there is in fact, under the frantic editing and dizzying camerawork, a quieter, more intelligent film trying to get out. Branagh’s Frankenstein is a man deep in trauma about death, unable to cope with losing people, whose fear becomes a dangerous obsession. The romance between Victor and Helena Bonham Carter’s sweetly innocent Elizabeth has a lot of warmth (the chemistry is also excellent: no surprise to hear that the actors started a long term relationship on the set of this film). There are moments here meditating on life and death, but they constantly get lost in the next ridiculous bloody action scene, or explosion of overblown acting.

Similarly, De Niro mines a lot of confused sympathy from the Creature – probably because he seems the quieter and more “normal” person, for all his scars and acts of murder. The sequence with the Creature looking after the family of a blind man (a decent Richard Briers) sees De Niro mine a great deal of vulnerability and innocence from his situation. The contained camera work and restrained acting make these the finest scenes in the film, more memorable than any of the blood and guts that fill the final half hour.

De Niro and Briers: Your only chance to see Travis Bickle and Tom Good share a scene

And those blood and guts are a problem, because this is not a scary film. Not even one little bit. Instead it’s either ridiculous or juvenile – in a sequence where a character literally has their heart ripped out by the Creature, Branagh can’t resist not only having the Creature holding it up to the camera, but for the camera to jump to a close up of the heart literally beating in its hand. Not scary, not gross, just stupid and childish. At any points of tension we get the pounding music and running around and shouting like a Gothic Doctor Who. If only Branagh had taken a breath and treated the material more calmly and sensibly we could have ended up with something creepy and spooky, rather than garish.

It’s a real, real shame because honestly there are some good things in this movie. I’ve mentioned De Niro, but Tom Hulce is also terrific as Clerval and Bonham Carter very good as Elizabeth. There are moments of real class in the design and production – I’ve lambasted Patrick Doyle’s score a bit, but there are some very good tracks in here. The problem, much as it massively pains me to say it because I love him, is Branagh. His performance and direction is just too much: too giddy, too overblown, too frantic, too overwhelming. The film comes across less as a tribute to old style melodramatic horror movies, more a very intelligent gifted man talking down at fans of the genre, giving them what it appears the genre is about on the surface, rather than the depths that actually appeal to people. Despite its merits, the film is not alive, but dead inside.

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