Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)

Kenneth Branagh acts and directs alongside Robert de Niro and Tom Hulce in this overblown Frankenstein film. Columbia UK R2 DVD.

The Film

At the end of the 17th Century, an Arctic exploration ship encounters a man walking on the remote ice flows. Announcing himself as Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) he tells his story... born in Geneva he had studied science from a young age, mostly focusing on the writings of ancient and medieval philosophers. Eventually he elects to leave home for the University at Ingolstadt. Conflicting immediately with the views of the "modern" Professor Krempe, he discovers that his colleague Waldman (John Cleese) is interested in discussing the ancient sciences that Victor himself believes hold the key to saving lives. After Waldman is murdered, Victor takes his journal and discovers his work on re-animation, electing to continue these long abandoned experiments by himself. Taking bodies from graves, he assembles a creature (Robert de Niro) and despite attempts by his friends Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and Henry Cerval (Tom Hulce) to get him to return home, he dismisses them and using a tank of electric eels for power, brings the creature to life - however when it appears to get killed in an accident, Victor leaves the room and collapses into a fever, but the creature is still alive and escapes from the town... after being attacked by townspeople, he finds a hiding place in a small cottage owned by a local family - watching them, he learns to write and talk, but after a mix-up he is attacked by the family, and feeling rejected by all humanity, he vows revenge on Frankenstein. Meanwhile, nursed back to health by Elizabeth and Henry, Victor returns home, but when he arrives, he learns that his young brother William has been murdered. The maid Justine is arrested, and and angry mob of townspeople lynch her, but Victor later meets his creation again who tells him that he was behind the murder. Victor refuses his request to make him a mate, and the creature swears to be with Victor on his wedding night...

Produced by Francis Ford Coppola's American Zeotrope, as a follow-up to his own Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), the Kenneth Branagh film takes a similar approach to its source novel. Although relatively faithful, as can be seen by the synopsis above, it does make numerous changes to the Shelley text, a few of them positive, but largely negative, ultimately missing the point entirely of many key themes in the book. Obviously, in order to keep the film down to a 2 hour run-time, a lot of the story has to be compressed, and the often rather lengthy discussion of Victor's childhood is considerably cut down here, while such lengthy asides as the Arabian adventures of the De Lacey family, and Victor's trip to Scotland are completely ignored, to the benefit of the film. The notion of Professor Waldman actually having previously experiemented, and seemingly succeeded, in the field of re-animation, is not taken from the novel, but was first used in the television movie Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), and fits the story well - explaining partly how Victor is able to discover the secret of life that has eluded man for so long, seemingly by himself, the details he gives of the method behind the creation is similarly well written. Fans of the book will also notice a variety of smaller changes, the origins of Henry Cerval are changed, as is the notion of Elizabeth herself coming to Ingolstadt, while Captain Walton, commander of the ice-bound exploration at the story's start and end, is now looking to travel to the North Pole, rather than to find a passage to the Far East (surely a more useful exploration).

While many of these changes are likely only to bother hardened fans of Shelley's novel, the script alterations do not stop there, and the writers saw fit to change more important elements, and whether by accident or design, succeed in altering some of the book's most important moments. After Shelley's Victor finally suceeds in bringing life to his creation, the shock of what he has done leads him into fits of panic and he runs out onto the streets for several hours until, eventually returning and discovering his creation gone, he falls into a fever that lasts 5 months. In the script here, Victor brings his creation to life, but while struggling, appears to kill it - thus he leaves the room, thinking that his experiment has failed. Victor's descent into madness therefore, is less well explained, and the source of the creature's lonely wandering is not the theme of parental neglect that Shelley had in mind, but the result of a simple mistake by Victor. The background of the creature itself is similarly damaged by a key alteration - both script and book have the creature hide in a cottage's barn and learn to speak and read from its inhabitants, but while the book sees the creature attempt to talk to the kindly blind grandfather, before being attacked by his son who sees the creation only as a monster, the son attacks the creation in the film script due to a confusion that would have lead him to attack any man who was in the house, regardless of appearance. It is this anger at Victor, for making him of repulsive looks, and abadoning him into the world, that leads the creature to seek revenge on him, therefore in the film, this reasoning behind his revenge is considerably flawed, making him into far more of a "monster" than Shelley envisaged at this point in the story.

Probably for dramatic effect, the miserable fate of Justine, convicted in Shelley's novel of a crime she did not committ, and duly executed, is worsened here, where she is sprung from her jail cell by an angry mob of townspeople and lynched. Unfortunately, for the sake of this action sequence, another of the book's key moments is lost. Victor is aware that his creation killed William and feels guilty throughout the court trial since he is unable (or unwilling) to speak out in her defence, eventually blaming himself for her death. With this public lynching, Victor had no chance to save her even if he had spoken out, again serving to diminish the factors behind his descent into madness, and ultimately making him far more heroic and "strong" than the almost helpless Victor who emerges in the latter part of Shelley's novel. By the film's end, the script takes complete leave of the book and seemingly inspired by Roger Corman's unimpressive Frankenstein Unbound (1990) sees Victor use the murdered Elizabeth as his second project, leading to a battle of wills between Victor and his original creation, over her affection. A good idea, that was rushed over in the Roger Corman film, it is sadly similarly served here - while most of the film is quickly paced, the entire sequence after her death rushes by, with Victor seemingly able to whip up a creation in a matter of hours.
The writers obviously decided that a more exciting climax would be needed after the story ends and we return to the Arctic setting - so we are treated to an unnecessary ice-flow break-up that destroys the grim atmosphere of the finalé.

Ignoring the original novel for now, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is still a flawed film with a poorly completed script. Jumps in logic abound (as mentioned above, the creature's muderous intent is poorly plotted) and the rapid pacing means that the fate of Victor's father is left confusingly ambiguous, the reason for the cottage dwellers to flee is never explained, and Henry simply disappears from the film towards the end. The "love triangle" between Elizabeth, Justine and Victor (an invention of this film) is similarly underdeveloped, and generally seems to be no more than a tagged on love story for the female audiences.

Kenneth Branagh's direction can simply be summed up as over-the-top, packed full of sweeping and rotating camera angles for no real purpose and even some random slow motion shots. The large budget means that the sets look good, populated by an ample number of extras, although Victor's lab is absurdly elaborate, looking more like the inside of a massive industrial complex than a man's lodgings, how he was able to construct it all is not explained - for comparison, see the far more realistic laboratory of Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein (1957). The soundtrack is a suitably over-blown orchestral score, in keeping with the tone of film and used effectively.

Over-the-top does not just stretch to the directing, and much of the acting is excessive to the point of parody (almost all of the cast get to scream NOOOOO! at some point). Director Kenneth Branagh obviously cast himself in the lead role (although he is rather stretching the portrayal of the 21 year old Victor) and spends much of the film walking around with his shirt off. Robert de Niro is curious casting as the creature, probably the only time it speaks with an Italian-American accent in cinema history. Well made up, he does a good job of imitating someone learning how to speak, and comes off as suitably threatening thanks to his effective screen presence, and in a clever casting turn, he also plays the executed criminal who's body Victor uses as the basis for his creation. Tom Hulce and Helena Bonham Carter are good as Henry and Elizabeth but don't get much to do. British actors Ian Holm, Richard Briers and John Cleese give good turns in extended cameos, while the rest of the cast give decent performances.

Although ludicrously overblown, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein suffers more from its break-neck pacing and a number of completely unnecessary changes to the original story that leave it full of plot holes and nonsensical. Although enjoyable, it can not be ranked as a good film, and comes only partly recommended. Not recommended for anyone looking for a faithful adaptation of the book.

In Brief

Anyone famous in it? Robert de Niro - ranked as one of the best actors ever, he is best known as star of Godfather II (1974)
Tom Hulce - Usually a stage actor, he will always be associated with the lead role in Amadeus (1984)
Directed by anyone interesting? Kenneth Branagh - as an actor, best known now for his appearance in the Harry Potter films, as a director is better known for his Shakespeare productions.
Is it scary?Not really, some jump shock.
Any violence/gore? Several graphically gory shots.
Any sex? Some hints, no obvious nudity (although Robert de Niro is naked during the "creation" sequence)
Who is it for?
Of interest to Frankenstein fans, although largely removed from the novel in several key areas, it should prove of interest to Kenneth Branagh fans.


Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour
The print is good with strong colours, and only mild grain, although there is some noticable artifacting in darker scenes.
Audio English stereo and 5.1 tracks - both sound strong.
Subtitles English, Polish, Czeck, Hungarian, Icelandic, Hebrew, Hindi.
Extras The disc contains - Original Theatrical trailer only.
Region Region 2 (UK, Europe) - PAL
Other regions? Available on a similar release in Europe and in the USA (be warned, most US discs currently available are full-screen only).
Cuts? The film is presented in its R rated cut (some sequences were removed before original release to secure an American R rating, these have never been re-inserted into the film).  The print used is English language.



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All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 6th January 2007.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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