Wednesday, October 12, 2005

"Mary Shelley's Frankenstein": the review

Along with my Freshman English class, I had the chance to see Kenneth Branagh star in and direct "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," a 1997 flick that features Robert DeNiro as the monster. I have no idea why the movie's title includes Shelley's name; the film diverged from the book in fundamental ways.

DeNiro did a fine job as the monster; the makeup artists took advantage of his characteristic grimace/sneer and created scar tissue that accentuated it to poignant effect. The costumers also deserve praise for making DeNiro look much taller than he actually is, though the cloak he wore also gave the impression that we were following the misadventures of an undead Franciscan monk.

Another notable in the cast was John Cleese as Frankenstein's mentor, Dr. Waldman. When I first read that Cleese had been cast in the role, I cringed, but Cleese, like DeNiro, approached his part with the appropriate gravitas. In Cleese's hands, Waldman ended up being a sympathetic character.

If only the other principals had done as well. Branagh-- a shirtless Branagh, no less-- was beyond Shatnerian both in front of and behind the swooping, gyrating camera. Imagine Steven Spielberg directing while drunk and you'll have some notion of what Branagh's style was like. In front of the camera, Branagh's Shakespearean training worked against him: Frankenstein's shouts of "Live! LIVE!" were downright comical, as were his knuckle-biting attempts to stave off tears.

The same goes for Helena Bonham Carter's performance as Elizabeth (Frankenstein's love interest and, briefly, his wife), which caused much mirth among my students. Part of the problem lay with the script, but Carter and Branagh are also to blame for Carter's performance, which often seemed like a bad parody of Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara. The freakishness only got worse when Elizabeth was brought back from the dead. Carter is a good performer when she's got the right material (cf. "Fight Club"), but she added little to Branagh's production.

In Mary Shelley's story, Elizabeth dies but isn't brought back to life. This is one of many areas where the movie and book differ. Other liberties include: (1) Henry Clerval's survival of the monster's murderous rampage; (2) Elizabeth's death by gruesome heart-removal (as opposed to implied strangling, the monster's normal M.O.); (3) the sequence of deaths (in the movie, Frankenstein's father dies before Elizabeth does, and not of a broken heart); (4) the location of Frankenstein's second lab (in the book, the lab is on one of the Orkney Islands, and the female monster never comes to life); and (5) the story's end (the monster immolates himself and the corpse of Frankenstein in the movie).

I have a feeling that this film would be a great template for a drinking game. Branagh's tics and Carter's wailing should be milked for all their worth. Rent this movie at your own risk.


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2 comments:

Charles said...

Never saw the movie, and now I probably never will. I did enjoy the book when I read it in university, though. One thing that stuck in my mind was how Frankenstein was unaware that all of the theories he had been learning in his self-studies (not sure if that's a word, but you know what I mean) had been exploded. Yet even after the prof at the university set him straight, he still continued in the same vein--and it worked anyway! It was kind of like, "Science isn't so much concerned with what is right as with what is safe."

Anyway, I suppose that's a relatively minor point in light of the other themes of the book. And it's possible that my memory is a bit murky, too.

Charles said...

On second thought, maybe I should replace "science" with "academia" in that sentence up there?