Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein came and went back in the nineties like a fleeting fart in the wind, so quickly out of the cinemas that I missed my chance to see it. Critics dismissed it as overwrought but I secretly thought that maybe they were wrong and it would one day be rediscovered as a misunderstood classic. Finally that day came and I was the man to rediscover it. So I watched it on a massive screen in all it’s glory. My god is it overwrought.
We begin the long haul in the ice, as Aidan Quinn tries to power his ship and reluctant crew up to the North Pole. There is an awful lot of screaming and shouting as the ship smashes against the ice, salty sea dogs drown and Quinn does his best mad-eyed Captain Ahab impression. Then Kenneth Branagh as Victor Von Frankenstein stumbles out of the snow and shouts at them all to run for their lives. Or sail for their lives, or whatever. Then Frankenstein recounts the tale of how he got there and who is shouting out in the mist at them all. We all know who it is, there’s no need to shout about it, but about about it he does. And so does everyone else. We go back to Victor’s childhood with his mum shouting in childbirth, then Victor shouting about her death, then there’s some mucking about with lightning and he and Helena Bonham-Carter scream for a change. Then he’s off to University where he shouts at his lecturer. He makes friends with Amadeus Mozart who spends most of his time shouting at Frankenstein through a locked door. John Cleese pops up in a rare serious role and would have got away with it if he wasn’t forced to shout at Branagh about what a bad idea his experiments are. Fortunately he’s not around long enough to get a sore throat as Robert De Niro pops up stabs him for no reason (cue more angsty screaming from Branagh and Mozart) before being hung for his crime, though not without a numbly shout at the crowd before hand. Soon Frankenstein has resurrected bits of De Niro as the monster with much sweaty topless shouting and screaming. This then goes on for two more hours, everyone shouts, then everyone screams, everyone dies and Aidan Quinn goes home.
This above description is not an exaggeration. Everyone really is at high fever-pitch all the time, Branagh is positively foaming at the mouth, De Niro you feel is desperate to reign it in but this is a big, lush, expensive production. There is no room for quiet moments on the giant grandiose sets. He would be lost in it. Even intimate moments when like when Victor tells Elizabeth he will return after University to marry her (that old line) is ruined by not only Branagh and Bonham -Carter shouting the lines when they are a foot away from each other, but also a cast of a hundred extras dancing through a window in the background.
The sets are magnificent though. Whether its 18th century Ingolstadt or the Frankenstein family’s great hallway with its huge sweeping and deeply unsafe staircase, the art department have excelled themselves. Frankenstein’s lab is filled with bronze birthing machines and weird steampunk pipes and there are lots of bright red flowing coats in amongst the mud and dirt of the city.
It’s such a pity all this is for nothing. The story is incredibly faithful to the book and there is a sense that there might have been a good script in there somewhere but it is all lost in amongst the noise. There are only two quiet moments in the whole film. One where the monster meets the blind man (beautifully underplayed by the great Richard Briers) and their brief friendship would be quite touching if it wasn’t for the fact that the scene is bizarrely intercut with the blind man’s family shouting in the forest. The other quiet moment, and the best scene in the film is when Frankenstein and the monster meet up in an ice cavern (no idea why or where its meant to be) and the creation asks his father why he made him and then abandoned him. It’s obviously a reference to God, which has always been an ongoing theme of the book and its various adaptions, and is a small, quiet and deeply sad moment really well played by De Niro. Even Branagh shuts up for a bit and just lets the characters breath.
The rest of the time we are left with the screaming and shouting and whaling and gnashing of teeth. I lost count of the amount of times the camera rose above a character while they screamed “Nooooooooooooooooooo!” I mean, that was a cliche twenty years ago. What the hell was Branagh thinking? Oh well, nevermind. It’s not like it’s the only movie version of Frankenstein out there.