A young doctor fatigued by the hopelessness of fatal cases decides to defy death by creating life, but not in the kinky, fun way. The monster he creates, though, is as destructive as it is lonely.
It was after listening to Byron and Shelley discuss the boundary between life and death and the possibilities of transgressing it through new pseudo-sciences, like galvanism, that the 19-year-
old Mary Godwin (subsequently Mrs Shelley) had the nightmare she elaborated upon to create her novel Frankenstein. Of course, they were all on drugs at the time, too.
Nearly 180 years later, this adolescent fairy tale of scientific monomania and romance — the grandfather of the Mad Scientist genre in literature and film still taps into some collective abhorred. and anticipates the medical either questions of the late 20th Century.
Kenneth Branagh's sumptuous version for Francis Coppola's Zoetrope, the umpteenth cinematic stab at Mary Shelley's story, is a vigorous, entertaining re-telling. Branagh's Victor Frankenstein is first seen frosted and furred in the Arctic, gasping out his cautionary tale to obsessed explorer Aidan Quinn, taking us back to his carefree youth, when the Swiss Family Frankenstein were fond of romping round their lovely chateau. Then a personal loss twisted the student doctor's soul. Bent on the reanimation of the dead, he sacrifices everything to that end, creating new life that never should have been wrought and condemning himself and his loved ones to retribution on a grand scale.
Branagh can never please everyone,of course, but his performance as Victor Frankenstein is muscular, best when driven and intense. Helena Bonham Carter looks splendid as his lifelong love, Tom Hulce is charming if underused as Victor's sunnier, concerned sidekick (Henry, not Igor), and a host of familiar British thesps do their thing big time, outshone by a quiet, completely unrecognisable John Cleese as Victor's troubled professor mentor.
For the first half of the film one wonders exactly what appeal the role of the creature could have had for Robert De Niro, unless it was a masochistic thrill to suffer in silence as his peg-legged miscreant is hanged for murder, spliced, diced, badly stitched up, dunked in goo, electrocuted, reviled and slung out to die by his insensitive, paternally challenged Victor F. But as his hideous wretch skulks yearningly around the hovel of poor-but-happy peasants (including the blind grandfather Richard Briers — a casting disaster for British audiences on titter alert), re-acquiring powers of speech, literacy and cogitation, nursing rejection into sensational revenge, one does warm to his unnatural plight.
The biggest contribution, however, is made by the extravagantly handsome production design and sequences derived from Branagh's love of Big Pictures: the discovery of a dead child, the mob lynching of an innocent, the reanimating of the corpse (an arrestingly yukky set-piece) and some ripping business with ice floes and electrical storms.
Unhappily, these are badly served by some inane dialogue that confuses camp melodrama with Gothic horror. James Whale's esteemed 1931 version, even more nominally based on the novel, is revered as much for its restraint as its expressionist style and Boris Karloff pitiable monstrosity.
In one's dreams, Branagh's romantic technicolour visuals wedded to a more intellectually rigorous screenplay that defied you to snigger, might have mounted a more serious challenge to the old classic. As Frankensteins go it's more enjoyable than many, but will no doubt pass muster simply as an acceptable night out that could have been better
Sumptuous to look at, with some decent performances but Branagh's attempt at this gothic horror just doesnt hold together convincingly and fails to engage.