After so many years of wanting to see this movie I finally have and the verdict is pretty weak. I enjoyed watching the movie because of its cast and the production values but unfortunately Branagh’s approach to the source material makes for a poor film. Branagh’s specific stylistics as a director includes loud constant music, lots of energy, melodrama and a staginess in the acting and sets. While for films like Much Ado About Nothing, this method works because the source material is a play and also lively and light and fun, Frankenstein is anything but. I can see where it might seem like a good idea to pump up the melodrama for a story like this. The story itself is fantastical yet grounded in our world, the time period and love story call for melodrama as do the Gothic feel of the book. However, the book is not full of energy; it’s full of slow contemplation and thought. The mood for Branagh’s film is all wrong. There should not be a fast pace and constant music and the film should not feel like it’s on a schedule but should unfold with a natural causal feel to it. Some of the pacing in this movie is unbelievable in a very bad way. The film feels like its rushing through so many things and there are parts of the movie particularly the first half an hour in which the film literally does not stop to breathe or to build up any sort of themes, relationships or characters within the movie. The film is too energetic and too fast paced for a story like this. The camera tracks around Victor’s mother as she has a baby with blood everywhere and there is very loud and intense music and there is lightning and it is so over the top. Then when she dies, Frankenstein cries and goes inside to find her dead body lying in a clearly strategically placed position to make the sight of her body look like art. Some of the film felt a little bit like the film was a stage play that was being filmed to be put on video. The next scene has Frankenstein at the funeral saying “No one needs to die” and that starts his obsession with the in his mind changeable inevitability of death. They set up this obsession so quickly that nothing that happens means anything to the audience because we are simply observing rather than participating in the story because the film is too busy throwing plot and movement and quickness at us for us truly care about anything.
The cast is interesting but also entertaining. Kenneth Branagh makes for a good Frankenstein; I just wish that his character was more fleshed out as I felt like I could not get a handle on the character nearly as much as you could in the boo. His obsession is made clear and his motivations were as well but Frankenstein as a person was a bit cardboard. Helena Bonham-Carter does a great job as Elizabeth; I always enjoy seeing her and she has always fit in so nicely with period films. Seeing the delightful Tom Hulce as Henry Clerval, my favorite character in the story was a treat and he fit really well into the role. Other appearances by actors such as John Cleese, Ian Holm and Aiden Quinn are welcome as well. Although Aiden Quinn’s performance felt a little off I must admit. He fit right in visually with the story but his acting in the film seemed as if h know that the prologue and epilogue of the story were meant to parallel the story’s theme of not giving in completely to ones will and determination because of other lives that might be risk because of one’s recklessness. Robert DeNiro is where things get a little interesting and certainly uneven. I will say it right now; he was miscast. If I did not know who Robert DeNiro was or if he had been an unknown actor for whatever reason, I would have greatly enjoyed the entire performance. However, when you have someone as big as DeNiro playing the Creature, it becomes distracting and at times difficult to take seriously. It was the same with the makeup as well; sometimes it would look good but in other scenes I had no idea why but it just would not click with me. To his credit though, the most effective scene and frankly the best scene in the film was the one between the Creature and the blind man which brings me to talk briefly about the most successful section of the film.
To me the most “unfilmmable” section of the book is the one in which the Creature educates himself and learns to read and speak and think logically through both time and his observations of a family. While of course the movie could in no way meet the complexities and depth of the section in the book, I still found this section to be the most successful and moving part of the film. This is mostly because Branagh changes the tone of these scenes by having a slower pace and no music. Again, while these scenes are still nowhere near as powerful as the book was, I still found a lot of value in them and I thought that DeNiro in these scenes was fantastic and the scene with him and the blind man was the best one in the film. I also found the departure from the book that the film took in that Victor brings back Elizabeth after she dies only to have her set herself on fire when she discovers what she looks like. I was surprised that Branagh went this way with the story when he had stayed quite close to the source material in terms of basic plot developments up until this point. I found the change intriguing in that it was actually effective in making the story very disturbing and depressing. At that point in the film I was not looking at it as an adaptation but simply as a film and whether or not it was effective and successful. So while the change was jarring and it ultimately changed nothing that happens in the film, it made the Victor and Elizabeth story more effective than it would have been if they had stayed faithful to the story.
In conclusion, while Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was not horrible, it most certainly was not good and I would chalk it up as an ultimate fail. Branagh’s style as a director does not fit the slow contemplative tone of the book and ultimately the film ended up being weirdly paced and overly melodramatic.