There have been many screen adaptations of Mary Shelley’s 1818 book Frankenstein, perhaps best known is Frankenstein (1931) from Universal Studios starring Boris Karloff. There are likely too many versions to count, the story is popular and memorable. Francis Ford Coppola tackled another famous monster with Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1991), and he was set to make a version of Frankenstein as a companion piece. However, directing duties for this version were given over to Kenneth Branagh, best known for his Shakespeare works such as Hamlet (1996) and Henry V (1989). The film would become Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), while a more faithful version to the book it also pays homage to the other adaptations and in true Branagh fashion it has many theatrical elements.
The story begins in 1794 in the Arctic Sea, with Captain Walton (Aidan Quinn) on his ship with his crew aiming to get to the North Pole. They get stranded, and a stranger is spotted, his name is Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) who then recounts his life story and what has brought him there. Going back to when Victor was a child, his family take in an orphan named Elizabeth (played by Helena Bonham Carter as an adult) who will ultimately become his love. As the years go by Victor’s parents are expecting another child and Victor himself is preparing to go to University to become a doctor. Before his sets off his mother dies in childbirth, leaving Victor a distraught man and failing to understand why death happens. Whilst off at University Victor gets mentored by Professor Waldman (John Cleese) and their research soon proves there is a way to bring back the dead. After disaster strikes, Victor collects a body and decides to use his knowledge to bring him alive. However the ‘creature’ (Robert DeNiro) brings forth much regret in Victor, which will have dire consequences.
There is much to admire with the film, the grand scale of the many sets and how beautifully it is shot, the make-up effects and costumes and are rather stunning. Where it fails in parts is the length, there could have been some tighter editing to make it a better paced film. There is quite significant character development, the film does belong to Victor and the ‘creature’, some of it could have been left out in regard to Victor. The other very odd element is how overly dramatic some scenes are, they become almost laughable when they shouldn’t be. This becomes apparent it is the way it is because it is theatrical and Branagh’s theatre background played a part in how he directed the film. Even with some faults, the film does remain mostly engaging with some great grand scenes.
A good strong aspect of the film are the performances, especially endearing is Robert DeNiro as the ‘creature’, who’s more quieter scenes are very memorable and make the ‘creature quite sympathetic. Even with some of the more over the top scenes, he handles it well and it is a different performance from the actor. Kenneth Branagh very rare gives a bad performance, and it is clear with how he played Victor this was a role he really wanted to get right. For the most part he does, the sequence where he brings the ‘creature’ to life is handled great and he played up the ‘mad scientist aspect well. Helena Bonham Carter is good as Elizabeth, her scenes towards the end of the film are easily her strongest. Ian Holm as Victor’s father isn’t a big role, but a memorable one, when he’s on screen you pay attention. John Cleese also delivered with his small role, he is almost unrecognizable and that makes his performance all the more interesting.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a bit of a mixed bag, the positives do outweigh the negatives and it is an enjoyable adaptation. It perhaps is the most faithful adaptation of the book thus far, even with more added to it. If a few elements were changed it would have been elevated to a great film, not just a good one. Branagh does a decent job as director, he clearly knew what he wanted out of the film and worked to get it. This is an interesting watch and it does make a good companion piece to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, not a bad way to spend a rainy day.
Review written by Marcella Papandrea