In 1994, Kenneth Branagh’s “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” was supposed to roar into our imaginations, yet it was hardly a critical success. Is it underrated?
An Epic That Landed with a Thud
This is a strange movie to talk about. Though it’s not very good, it’s good enough to sort of defend. I think it deserves some context: When people attempt to tackle a classic story, there is a tendency to overbuild expectations already. However, when the Hollywood mentality is involved, it pretty much has to be promoted as an epic venture. That’s how you build interest from producers, and gain audience attention as well. I think Branagh’s version suffered from this phenomenon, in addition to whatever shortcomings were inherent in the film’s story (including the original story) and design.
To my understanding, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story is largely about man trying to overcome mortality, but overcoming his morality in the process. It’s a classic story of taking things too far, and too soon. Giving life to the dead has always been interesting, and Branagh obviously doesn’t downplay this aspect of the story. However, somehow, Frankenstein here doesn’t come across as a central character. In fact, in an odd way, neither does his monster.
Although Frankenstein’s creation is played by Robert De Niro, one of the greatest American actors, he seems more of a curious figure than a compelling one. Even John Cleese — known for Monty Python — has a totally understated and lackluster performance. In fact, I didn’t even know he was in this thing until after I watched it.
Somehow, this is a film where no characters, including Frankenstein and his monster, seem central to the plot. Instead, it seems like a film with loose-fitting ideas tied to action sequences. Or, at least that’s what critics seem to believe.
Branagh with Helena Bonham Carter. (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, TriStar Pictures)
Lack of Subtlety and Nuance
Upon visiting this film again, I realized that, rather than spelling things out very well, Branagh sort of lets the action fill in the gaps. This harks back to one of the screenwriter’s critiques of the final product. Calling it “the best script I ever wrote and the worst movie I’ve ever seen,” Frank DaraBont explained: “It has no patience for subtlety. It has no patience for the quiet moments. It has no patience, period. It’s big and loud and blunt and rephrased by the director at every possible turn. Cumulatively, the effect was a totally different movie. I don’t know why Branagh needed to make this big, loud film…the material was subtle.”
In other words, Branagh went for another more meat-and-potatoes version of the classic legend. It’s mostly the story of a civilized, intelligent man who, in his quest to conquer death, becomes a madman and creates what everyone considers an abomination. Simplicity itself!
Where We Might Give it Credit
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Still, Branagh deserves credit for what the film does showcase: Prejudice. It is made very clear, from the first few scenes on, that Victor Frankenstein was living in a very prejudiced time and place, and where emotions would trump reason at almost every turn. It’s an era where people could be hanged in the town square, and people would cheer. Quite simply, there are no notes of subtlety in such scenes, and probably shouldn’t be.
It’s a movie about how, unfortunately, actions do speak louder than words, and all the subtlety and nuance in the world are irrelevant when you’re dangling from a rope, feet twitching wildly in front of a cheering or jeering crowd. So this is a very stark film, even if it suffers from a few big-budget Hollywood clichés. Given how people shun the monster based on its appearance, this tale remains timeless. That’s why, despite Branagh’s non-classical tone, people may still be able to watch and appreciate this particular re-telling.
Helpful Hints: How to Appreciate Branagh’s “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”
Don’t expect it to be a masterpiece, or that it will meet all of your expectations. In fact, you shouldn’t expect that of any film. Instead, you the viewer will have to try to understand where the film is coming from, and why. Yes, appreciation of a movie can sometimes be work, but it may just pay off if you’re open to it. That being said, don’t strain your brain too hard here. This is not the greatest “thinking man’s horror” showcase of all time. Rather, it’s a movie that requires some attention, paired with an appreciation for action and a suspension of disbelief.
What are your thoughts? Do you like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or do you think this one died at the operating table? Tell us how you feel in the comments below.