Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont (based on the novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley)
Though demented and lurid, and not accepted in all quarters, Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula—titled Bram Stoker's Dracula to emphasize that this one was all about the source material, not like those other Draculas—had been a big hit. Coppola—for whom it was his last hit, though in the moment it must've felt like a new beginning—set out to ride the wave he'd started, in partnership with Sony's newly-acquired American studio, Columbia (this one being released under the Columbia imprint, Tri-Star, but either way, some of the best studio logos of all time). Thus, with Bram Stoker's Dracula screenwriter James V. Hart in tow as a co-producer, they determined to take on Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, which is to say they did the exact same thing Universal did in 1931 when their Dracula was a big hit. Change the order around, and they did the exact same thing Hammer did in 1957, when The Curse of Frankenstein was a big hit. If we go all the way back, perhaps we discover the reason why these stages have always felt so distinct and probable: Lord Byron's contribution to the famed spooky story contest that birthed Frankenstein on that unseasonably cold summer evening was, itself, some doodle about vampires, and eventually that doodle became John Polidori's 1819 short story, The Vampyre, the origin of much of what we today conceive vampires to be.
Again, the novelty would be fidelity: this wasn't Frankenstein, but Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. And I don't know what the word "fidelity" means to Coppola, but it's obviously non-standard. Bram Stoker's Dracula draws no more from any Dracula, including Stoker's, as another Universal horror altogether, 1932's The Mummy; for its part, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein doesn't even play that much of a game, being, in the essential details, a remake of Universal's 1931 Frankenstein and 1935 Bride of Frankenstein. They are, to stake my position on Coppola's Gothic horror, both masterpieces, but Bram Stoker's Dracula is a masterpiece in part because of the alterations it makes; Mary Shelley's Frankenstein's relationship to its changes, however, is a more complicated affair, probably in the aggregate valuable for its adaptation—it's more difficult to say "it's an improvement," because Frankenstein is a way better novel than Dracula—but it nonetheless commits the crime of muddling Shelley's story the same way perhaps literally all the adaptations of her Frankenstein have done, so that the unique faithfulness promised by that title, and furthered in all manner of little things (for instance, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein inherits Shelley's conscious decision to ignore the hell out of the Revolutionary Wars, despite the film thoughtlessly pinning its primary events to 1794 instead of Shelley's more nebulous "17—") shall be, ultimately, belied.
This isn't even what people don't like about it! And most people don't like it: when it arrived two years after Dracula it was not given anything like the same reception, critically or commercially, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has been the beneficiary of only the most intermittent (and even then, not particularly passionate) attempts at rehabilitation—which is a difference indeed from Bram Stoker's Dracula, which seems like it gets a "rehabilitation" practically every single time a new vampire movie comes around, despite one's presumption that one of 1992's top ten earners requires no rescuing. I will say now that I completely fail to comprehend how these two films—my favorite vampire movie altogether, and my favorite adaptation of Frankenstein—could have wound up with such disparate fates; I find it so perplexing that I can't get properly indignant about it. There's only one person I know who has a good reason to hate Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, yet most of the people who do aren't Emma Thompson. But in some irony, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is hated even by its own writers, Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, the latter complaining that his script is still there, he just doesn't recognize it anymore. I've described Coppola as its prime mover, but this brings us to the reason we're here, its actual director, Kenneth Branagh.
I am not certain "why Branagh?" has a known answer: "Shakespeare specialist" doesn't scream "therefore a good fit to adapt the first work of modern sci-fi horror just because it is, likewise, technically English literature." I assume Dead Again must have figured somewhere into Coppola's calculus. (I assume he liked it—after all, he was right then in the process of making his own!) Accordingly, Francis Ford Coppola's Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein feels very much like Branagh building upon Dead Again, with all the lessons learned from both that film, and all his others, striving—this time not straining—for something operatic and mythic and grand. But it still feels like the truest possible companion piece there could be to Coppola's Dracula, which is where I really struggle to understand how anybody could like one and not the other—if you like neither, then at least you're consistently square—for they use similar strategies to reach similar goals. (Not, mind you, identical: I'm rather sure Coppola stayed well out of Branagh's way.) But both want to strip the quaintness out of material that, even when it had been adapted well (and I'm a big fan of several of Universal's Frankensteins), it was nevertheless stuff fit enough for babies that Coppola and Branagh undoubtedly watched them when they, themselves, still were babies, and now each director saw himself in pursuit of the nasty, throbbing vitality they perceived beneath. Darabont complained that it was loud, that it lacked subtlety, that it had no patience, that it was too "metal." I wish, so much, that his interviewer had asked him, as a follow-up, "Dude, did you even watch Bram Stoker's Dracula?" Branagh simply understood his task.
But they do have their distinctions, surely. Personally, I find them so wonderfully complementary: probably the biggest difference is purely subjective, that Coppola's Dracula, in its infinite distortions of form, is more concerned with enforcing weird contradicting emotional states by way of what often feels like an imposition from infernal forces from outside the film and maybe outside reality as we understand it, while Branagh's Frankenstein is more normal in this respect, interested in drawing its emotions, however elemental they remain, out of its characters, and backing them up with Branagh's own idiomatic cinematic tricks, particularly the reckless kineticism of his mobile, long-take compositions. Neither you nor anyone you know will ever, ever be as mindlessly happy as a Branagh character is supposed to be when his dizzying camera finds them in mid-frolic, and this doesn't just wind up being kineticism for a kineticism's sake, as it does underline what's been lost in favor of unrestrained ambition and heedless Enlightenment; using the same whirligig shots even after the darkness has metastasized throughout the narrative renders the proceedings ever more perverse, but also seemingly unstoppable, the inevtiable result of plumbing abysses that are best not explored. Meanwhile, its performances find that register, too: they feel more of a piece with heightened humanity, rather than pageantlike caricature—this isn't a knock on Dracula, but it's the right choice for Frankenstein, which relies significantly more on character psychology; the difference, to be even vaguer and more subjective, is that while Dracula asks you to let its story wash over you, Frakenstein asks you to let it take root.
There is that story, and this Frankenstein, I believe uniquely, does do Shelley the honor of retaining something like her original framing as well as the blunt thematic parallelism offered by that framing (and, likewise, the flattening denouement which it sets up). So: in the far north a vessel of exploration has found itself in desperate straits, the result of Captain Robert Walton's (Aidan Quinn's) arrogant and foredoomed quest to find the North Pole; what he finds instead, to his astonishment, is a man who's tread much the same vainglorious path, though, if I may, he's been substantially more responsible and successful. This, of course, is Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh*), and, for the record, the film does not retain the manner in which the captain strongly seems to have fallen in love at first sight with Victor; even so, he wishes to know how Victor arrived here at the ends of the Earth, and Victor indulges him, hoping to impart a lesson as well as to relieve his soul of his lonely burden, and he tells his tale of a father, a son, and a mutually annihilating revenge. And so, in the Old Swiss Confederacy, we find a much younger Victor, with a few changes from Shelley here and there, all useful embroidery, mixed in with what was already present: his aristocratic doctor father (Ian Holm) has laid out the broad shape of his destiny already, but the formative moment arrives when his mother (Cheri Lunghi) dies giving birth to his brother, crystallizing something in Victor. In the meantime, he still has his "sister," who shall someday be his wife, his family's ward Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, the reason why I assume Emma Thompson has never, in fact, actually seen Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), and she's no longer his cousin, because I guess this is Mary Shelley's 1831 Recension, but they do lean heavily enough upon "brother" and "sister" that calling it cowardice might be hasty.
But Victor leaves her for university in Ingolstadt, where his youthful radicalism makes enemies but also friends, particularly fellow student Clerval (Tom Hulce), and perhaps more importantly a professor, Waldman (John Cleese, of all people, practically unrecognizable). Waldman has taken the forbidden science that Victor craves most of the way, but he quailed before completing his experiments; when he dies at the hands of a recalcitrant variolation skeptic, however, Victor vows to finish his work whether he wanted it finished or not, resurrecting Waldman's brain in the body of his own murderer, but giving life to something, or to someone, who is neither Waldman nor his killer, but Frankenstein's own Creature (Robert De Niro). Existence is no blessing for the Creature, and Victor, for his part, realizing too late what sin he has committed, vacillates between rejecting him, agreeing to help him, and plotting his destruction. In never quite choosing, he has effectively chosen the destruction of them both, and many others besides.
That's almost Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but the part that isn't isn't trifling: here's where I admit that I don't really find The Frankenstein Story ideologically congenial (it is, to my mind, inherently reactionary), and that's been the case in many of its innumerable variations; but perhaps it's been the least so, as far as stories actually called Frankenstein are concerned, in Shelley's. But the relevant text is present in both the 1818 and 1831 editions:
A new species would bless me as its creator and source... I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.
So you shall notice the one thing Shelley explicitly says Frankenstein does not do is what Frankenstein practically always does in Frankenstein movies, and, indeed, does here: resurrect the dead. (The Creature, originally, is something akin to a sculpture made out of hot dog meat, which works for some reason that I doubt Shelley considered important.) Anyway, it takes it a little bit out of Shelley's concept—not even just the personal elements thereof (her unusual relationship with her father, her miscarriage), but the more universal resonances, of its observation that the forces of the Enlightenment could as readily degrade men and women into instrumentality as ennoble their souls, or the inchoate anger of an early atheism, still nursing a grudge at God for failing to exist. The film, however, reduces Shelley's mystical usurpation of God to a mere blashphemy, which I'm too much of a 21st century materialist to really understand the portent of—if you've "resurrected" the dead doesn't that just mean they didn't die? (You want to scream at him that he's advanced medicine to the level of a futuristic utopia. And mishandling corpses is a misdemeanor.) Rest easy, for this Creature is still a violent incel, exactly as Shelley would have had it—but there we are, he desires a counterpart like himself. Well, there are about half a billion of them, because he's human, and not in some aspirational sense. And so the biggest problem this creates isn't even thematic but visual, and I will admit it distracts me even though I can readily will it away: with the film perceiving the need to render an immediately-sympathetic Creature out of De Niro—not Karloff's frightening monster, let alone Shelley's abominable colossus—we find an unexpectedly urgent reason to ignore those Revolutionary Wars I mentioned, since this Creature, while mutilated, still looks roughly like every tenth guy in Europe would anyway. Is Lord Nelson so much better-looking? Because he banged Lady Hamilton, who looked like Vivien Leigh. But who knows; maybe Shelley would have approved of this development, a being cast out despite only being "different" by an accident of birth (or un-death). Probably the single most annoying thing the movie does, then, is simply going out of its way to indicate head trauma as the source of his malfunctions, rather than the inherent sacrilege of the process; it feels unbearably focus-grouped and literal, though it's only even established in an insert shot that Branagh has practically buried, like he didn't actually want you to notice it.
For all that, though that's a lot of "that," by no means would I trade it, and I don't think I'd even need to give a reason besides the creation sequence that Branagh puts together; Shelley, obviously, was rather fuzzy on this point, and so filmmakers have always filled that void with their own imaginations. There are exceptional filigrees here in Branagh's rendition that each would've made it special on its own: the aforementioned irony of using Waldman's murderer as his new chassis; the force that Shelley merely called a "spark of life" not discovered in bolts of divine lightning here, but in electric eels, a delectably gross little touch that anchors this Frankenstein to the biological muck, and will also resemble sperm fertilizing an egg; and of course there's Victor haunting maternity wards and stealing buckets full of liquor amnii. And none of that is the thing, which is the gaudy combination of Georgian steampunk factory fabrication with an emphatic, almost explicit eroticism—a shirtless, sweaty, ultimately rather greasy Branagh (this is peak Branagh for the Branaghsexual, truly a romance novel cover come to life), presently pounding on the revivification tank, like he's literally fucking the life into his golem, altogether an obscenely masculine inversion of childbirth.
This is, anyway, the best scene, and about a dozen more compete right below it for second-best, and I will only point out some highlights, like the use of ice, in the Arctic and later the Alps, as the foundation of an apocalyptic dreamscape—probably the film's fiercest flirtation with genuine anti-literalism—that I'm not sure has any particular symbolic valence here or in Shelley (it's probably as simple as conceiving of the story on a trip to Switzerland during the Year Without a Summer), but it remains terribly suggestive of desolation, of non-life. It's a very lovely film, and even more expensive than Dracula; this was production designer Tim Harvey's fourth of fully eleven films alongside Branagh, and possibly his best effort with him (Hamlet is stiff competition), full of physicality, gothy creepiness, and flights of pure fancy, like the striking evocation of his Frankenstein manor's seemingly-never-ending staircase, curving up and aloft into empty space. It's matched with strong photography from Roger Pratt in the last phase of his career where he was meaningfully A-list, that conjures something like contemporary illustration in its brittle, grayed softness, and isn't "realistic" in its frequent recourse to barely-motivated light sources (up to and including unmotivated spotlight), but without surrendering the tangibility that's one of Branagh's hallmarks. And I believe you would be able to place it as a companion to Bram Stoker's Dracula just by the way it moves. This (other than De Niro) could be the one thing I suspect Coppola might have asked of Branagh specifically; but it's to a different emotional effect, intoxicating, yet not disorienting, always a headlong and fatalistic straight line, barreling through the paces of Victor's obsession. But just like Dracula it's still awfully breathless and vivid.
That obsession is the heart of it; Frankenstein boasts a top-to-bottom stellar cast, despite (and because of) Branagh's instinct to pitch everything right into orbit, concluding practically every line with a whole string of exclamation marks—in a script where a quarter of the dialogue might already be single words like "NO" and "LIVE," all-caps in the original. But perhaps the most subtle change to the text involves the slight displacement of the Creature. De Niro is good: pitiable, and even in his rage commanding dignity in ways that retain your sympathy (he has, certainly, the single best small acting beat here, right at the end, in an artfully-sloppy shot that communicates the pointless ruin of it all). Yet, affable egotist that Branagh is, of course Mary Shelley's Frankenstein winds up being more about the character played by its director than the novel might be asking for. It drives Victor forwards with pain as well as pride, a Prometheus who gets, in Branagh, a complete personality, and the spectacular yet intimate reimagination of Bride of Frankenstein as something that concerns Victor's own hypocrisy is a hell of a way to punish this Prometheus for his transgression. Shelley's novel is extremely rewarding on behalf of its monster, who weeps for the father he never had; that rich vein is fully exploited here. But Branagh charts a course that's at least equal in its weight, making a genuinely Romantic hero out of material that doesn't necessarily like Frankenstein. And, to be fair, Darabont wasn't wrong about it: it's totally metal.
*That is, Francis Ford Coppola's Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein's Frankenstein, Kenneth Branagh. I am sorry.