Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a 1994 American horror film directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Robert De Niro and Branagh himself. It also stars Tom Hulce, Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, John Cleese (Monty Python), Aidan Quinn and Richard Briers.
Produced on a budget of $45 million, it is considered the most faithful film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
The film opens with quote by Mary Shelley:
“I busied myself to think of a story which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror; one to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.”
The story begins in the year 1794. Captain Walton is leading a daring expedition to reach the North Pole. While their ship is trapped in the ice of the Arctic Sea, Walton and his crew discover a man traveling across the Arctic on his own. In the distance, a loud moaning can be heard. When the man sees how obsessed Walton is with reaching the North Pole, he asks, “Do you share my madness?” The man then reveals that his name is Victor Frankenstein and begins his tale…
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sticks pretty closely to the plot (if not the tone) of Mary Shelley’s original novel. What that means is that this movie includes a lot of the good stuff that often seems to get left out of other Frankenstein adaptations. For instance, we learn more about the life of Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) before he created his monster. We find out about his family and his troubled romance with Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter). Victor’s good friend Henry Clerval (Tom Hulce) is included and so is Professor Waldman (John Cleese) and Captain Robert Walton (Aidan Quinn).
It also means that we get to watch as the Monster (Robert De Niro) flees into the wilderness and later befriends a kindly blind man (Richard Briers). The Monster, as always, is happy until mankind interferes and treats him unfairly. The Monster learns to speak and, after it learns to read, it discovers who created it and it sets out for revenge. We watch as everyone that Victor Frankenstein cares about dies, all as a result of his desire to play God.
And yet, while you have to respect the fact that Branagh tried to stay (more or less) true to the plot of the original novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a bit of a chore to sit through. A huge part of the problem is that Kenneth Branagh cast himself to play Victor Frankenstein. In the book, Victor is a rather sickly character and his desire to create life is probably as much inspired by his own poor health and the death of the people close to him. In the film, Branagh plays Victor as being almost a Byronic figure, with the camera emphasising his flowing hair and his muscular physique. Even when Victor does push himself to the point of death in his research, you never really believe it because Branagh the director isn’t willing to let Branagh the actor look weak or malnourished. However, turning Victor into an alpha male also turns him into a jerk. Unlike say Colin Clive or Peter Cushing in The Curse of Dracula, you never find yourself sympathising with Kenneth Branagh’s Victor.
And then you have Robert De Niro as the Monster. De Niro may be a great actor but it’s hard to accept the idea that a monster created in Germany would speak with a New York accent. Even under tons of makeup, he does an okay job of projecting the Monster’s rage but, unlike Karloff or Christopher Lee, De Niro never seems to really connect with the character. You never forget that you’re watching a heavily made-up Robert De Niro.
Branagh’s directs in a manner that can only be called operatic, which turns out to be a mistake. The story is already dramatic enough without Branagh spinning the camera around every few moments. There’s not a subtle moment to be found in the film but unfortunately, Frankenstein is a story that needs just a little bit of subtlety. It all gets to be a bit overwhelming and, by the time the Monster is literally ripping a heart out of a body, you’re just like, “Enough already!”
Lisa Marie Bowman, guest reviewer via Though the Shattered Lens
“The key problem, I dare say, is the director’s performance. He plays Frankenstein with all the spirit he can muster, yet he’s too conventionally engaging — his Victor is a kind of fervid yuppie workaholic who never seems truly possessed of a dark side…” Entertainment Weekly
“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was a worthy attempt to give the story a big-budget makeover but ultimately it collapsed under the weight of its own pretentiousness, and it was further hampered by a lack of frights.” Bruce G Hallenbeck, The Hammer Frankenstein (Hemlock Film Books, 2013)