Frankenstein is a melodramatic story, there’s no doubt about that. Mary Shelley’s novel is profound in many ways…but it’s also a lot of gasping and shrieking and cursing the heavens. I get that. Film versions are hardly ever Oscar winners, and the one film that gets close to recreating the novel, Kenneth Brannagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), is great up until Helena Bonham-Carter’s reanimated character bursts into flames and goes running through the stone castle, inexplicably setting the whole thing alight. Actually, it may have careened out of control much earlier, when the half naked Victor is rolling about in amniotic fluid with his newly created creature. Also, electric eels…
My point is that when I went to see Victor Frankenstein, I was prepared for goofy acting and over-the-top mayhem. I was actually eagerly awaiting it. Unfortunately, I underestimated just how over-the-top a movie like this can be. Victor Frankenstein may actually be just as (if not more) crazy than Brannagh’s take on the story. And that’s very hard to do.
Told from the point of view of Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), it tells the story of how a deformed hunchback working for a circus happens to meet a brilliant doctor named Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) who has some…questionable hobbies. The good doctor brings Igor into his world of mad experiments whilst dodging the queries of the fanatical Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott) who is convinced that Victor is up to no good. Thrown into this whole thing is the lovely Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay), a circus acrobat who has caught the eye of Igor, and Lord (or Duke or Earl or something) Finnegan (Freddie Fox), a wealthy noble of dubious intentions (and perfect hair) who acts as Victor’s patron.
To say this movie is melodramatic would be an understatement. There’s so much scenery chewing that I’m surprised they had a set by the end of it all (they hid the teeth marks very well). The only actor who keeps things reigned in is Radcliffe, but because everyone else around him is so madcap, he comes across as a little bland at times, which is sad because he does a fine job. But try as he might, he just can’t outshine McAvoy who is likable, despicable, vulnerable, and borderline insane in every scene in which he appears (and, in many cases, he cycles through all four of those things in one scene). He and Radcliffe have great chemistry, and I think in a less bonkers movie, they could really balance each other out well.
And then there’s Andrew Scott’s character, a religious zealot who keeps his volcanic emotions roiling behind a facade of controlled stoicism. I sort of kept expecting his character to break out into a stirring rendition of “Stars” from Les Miserables at any moment. Jessica Brown Findlay also gives a relatively restrained performance, but her character is sadly little more than window dressing so it’s difficult to really assess a performance that gets drowned out by the other actors, no matter how many vibrant outfits she wears.
The characters may all be insane, but the cinematography ensures that we understand that this is totally normal in this mad-carnival iteration of Victorian London. The CG backdrops are as kinetic as a daycare and as misty as a Scottish moor. As for the camera, it is either always in motion, favoring Dutch angles and extreme POV’s, or else it’s crammed so close to the actors that the spittle, blood, and sweat that’s constantly dripping down their features is practically a character in and of itself, especially since Victor is always cackling madly or screaming. He’s a very…drippy character…
In terms of the plot, there’s very little that is surprising. It’s clear they just borrowed all the most familiar elements from the various incarnations of the story and dressed them up in fun steampunk-inspired trappings. The trailer made it seem that this was meant to be a buddy comedy, but the script doesn’t go out of its way to be intentionally funny, which seems like a missed opportunity. There is one moment that I loved wherein the socially awkward Victor (assisted by too much drink) screams out the phrase “Babies in vats!” during a high society ball while he gleefully tells two shocked ladies that, because of science, women aren’t necessary for procreation anymore. Igor has a few forgettable moments of comedy, but they’re lost in the mix. Radcliffe has marvelous comedic timing, but because he’s the “straight man”in the story, he’s not given much to work with, comedy-wise.
One thing I have to address before I wrap this up is the homoerotic subtext, which is the one thing that keeps this movie from being added to the “forget it and never watch it again” bin. Actually, the word subtext is misleading. This is more like mile-high supertext. It’s so blatantly overt that, if Victor and Igor had dropped their bloody tools mid-scene and started making out, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. It actually might have made the movie a whole lot better, to be completely honest. The original novel has its share of such subtext (Henry Clerval, amirite?), so I’m happy to see it here, but it got me thinking that perhaps the writers had originally intended this to be a queer retelling of the original narrative (which would have been genuinely interesting and daring), but they got cold feet and decided to scrap that idea. I doubt that’s the case, but it’s nice to imagine.
The result we got may just be a vehicle for queer-baiting meant to appease fangirls on Tumblr, but if one wanted to interpret the story as a complex web of love triangles between four men and a woman, it doesn’t take a whole lot of stretching to make that plausible. Plus there’s the whole “men creating life without women” issue that brings up some fun discussions about a number of currently trending topics. This is probably the only reason why I’d watch the movie again, to be completely honest…
Overall, though, the film just tries too hard to really work. It distracts from a flaky plot with flashy visuals and intense performances, but it just doesn’t quite come together. It has the same sort of feel as Van Helsing (2004), but with less overt comedy. It’s an entertaining hour and a half, but there’s not much that really sticks with the audience apart from all the Victor/Igor and Turpin/Victor slash fanfiction ideas that this movie is no doubt going to inspire in the minds of those who are so inclined. For those who aren’t, I’d say save your money. You can check it out once it shows up for free on Netflix, but you don’t really need to bend over backwards to go see this one.
You should go check out The Good Dinosaur, Pixar’s latest sob-fest. I hear it’s good and, once I am in the mood to be emotionally devastated, I’ll go check it out.
See you next week!