Frankenstein: Kenneth Branagh’s Version Starring De Niro

Ever since his stunning directorial debut, Shakespeare’s Henry V (1989), British Kenneth Branagh has proved himself to be quite a diverse filmmaker, equally comfortable at doing Shakespeare (last year’s Much Ado About Nothing) as making a silly noir thriller (Dead Again, 1991) or a theatrical comedy (Peter’s Friends, l992).

And now Branagh has turned his attention to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a big-budget epic with lavish costumes and spectacular set pieces. The film benefits from the supervision of Francis Ford Coppola, who two years ago himself rendered a modern interpretation of a classic horror tale, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

For Branagh, certain elements of Hamlet are also in Frankenstein: “Everybody is dead at the end, the entire family is wiped out. It’s like the end of Hamlet.” However, Branagh’s approach to Shelley’s material is more informed with the horror vocabulary–a “rip-roaring yarn with a full-blooded love story.”

The word monster was reportedly banned from the set of Frankenstein, which Branagh not only directed but also co-produced and stars in. This, of course, goes to show that this Frankenstein, unlike the 1931 Hollywood film, is more faithful to Shelley’s gothic thriller, originally published in 1818, when she was barley 20 years old.

The new version pays more attention to the historical context of Vienna as well as to the workings of the medical profession. Branagh also takes a closer look at Victor Frankenstein’s family background, particularly his intimacy and adoration for his mother, who died in childbirth, while he was a child. As the story jumps forward to Victor as a mature man, he is still haunted by his mother’s tragedy, determined to find a scientific way to defeat death–bring the dead back to life.

The 1931 Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff, is one of the most popular horror films ever made and with good reasons. Karloff gave such an anguished performance that some images from the film have become indelible. The first one that comes to my mind, whenever I think of James Whale’s film, is the scary scene in which the Monster makes flower boats for a beautiful little girl, shortly before drowning her in the lake.

At the center of the 1931 picture was Colin Clive’s neurotic, heartbreaking performance as the scientist. Clive played him as a tormented man, one whose life is split between the daylight, joyous world of his fiance and friends, and the night, dominated by his dreams–and demons.

The first–and better–part of Frankenstein establishes Victor, the young descendant of a wealthy Geneva family, as he arrives in Germany to study medicine. The film captures his youthfulness, idealism, and rebellious desire to go beyond the conservative medical science. There are also lovely moments between Victor and his devoted fiance, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter).

With all the authentic historical detail, however, this Frankenstein suffers from major shortcomings. The screenplay, written by Frank Darabont (who wrote and directed the earnest Shawshank Redemption) doesn’t stress enough the symbiotic, complex, and ambivalent relationship between Frankenstein, the father-creator, and his Creature-son. What made the l931 film so touching was the pathos, the tragedy of both the scientist and his monster. In Branagh’s version, the intensity of the core drama is lost amidst special effects and production values.

Moreover, with the exception of Helena Bonham Carter, the acting of the two leads just exacerbates the film’s problems. Sporting curly red hair, Branagh looks like a handsome, if wholesome yuppie scientist; for most of the film, he’s stripped to his waist, flaunting his trimmed body. But his appearance–and acting–lacks the obsession, the dark demons that a man like Frankenstein must have possessed.

It’s hard to tell whether Robert De Niro was misguided by Branagh or whether it’s his interpretation that makes his work just proficient, but not compelling. Physically, De Niro’s creature is a haunting image, with his shaved head and barbed-wired stitches that run across his face. But as soon as the Creature appears, the film loses his mystery, energy, and uniqueness; in some sequences, De Niro just looks like a psycho killer in a horror movie.

For novelist Shelley, the Creature, who learns to speak, was no alien or psychopath, but a misunderstood, instinctual child trapped in the body of a grown up. Untamed by society, the Creature vacillates from tenderness and kindness to brutality and murder, lacking the capability to understand the difference between his reactions. In this version, the climax, in which the Creature confronts his “father” and reproaches him for abandoning him, is disappointing; there’s hardly sadness, hardly any lyricism in it.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a work of meticulous skill. For instance, the sequence in which Victor brings the Creature to life is impressively executed–with the requisite suspense and polished production values that are expected of sci-fi pictures. But for all his craftsmanship, Branagh hasn’t succeeded in capturing the dramatic core of the book, i.e. Victor’s obsession with death, his desperate attempt to temper with Nature and experiment with life. This Frankenstein is an impersonal work, an earnest, over-produced film in which the feelings get lost.