Saturday, 11 April 2015

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)

"You gave me life, and then you left me to die."

This is a very different cinematic version of Frankenstein. The point is not that it follows the broad outline of Mary Shelley's novel- which, not splitting hairs, it more or less does, including the Arctic bits- but that it is quite self-consciously made as part of a different genre. This doesn't have the trappings of a horror film and, unlike every other version I've seen, isn't a melodrama. Instead, this is presented simply as an adaptation of s classic novel, owing more to Merchant Ivory than to James Whale or Terence Fisher. The very presence of Helena Bonham Carter would signify that, we're it not for the fact that she would go on to meet Tim Burton.

Obviously, this means a focus on scientific ethics. But Kenneth Branagh's take on the themes of the novel seems to emphasise the Gothic, and not just in terms of mood; he includes the prominent lecture room scene in which Frankenstein stands up for an older, "philosophical" approach to science, and the controversial Professor Waldman (played by John Cleese in an entirely serious role) stands for an older, more alchemical tradition. This makes the monster, in a sense, a creation of the knowledge of a dark past- true Gothic.

It's also worth pondering Branagh's take on the links to Romanticism too, what with the original author being married to a certain writer of Ozymandias (and the thematically relevant Prometheus  Unbound) but not really in tune with the movement. Frankenstein here seems to be no fan of rationalism, yet he is hardly a sympathetic figure.

The film works well enough; Bonham Carter is excellent in the film's (and novel's) only significant female role from the pen of a daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft. Branagh is competent although, outside classical parts, he is not the most charismatic of actors; next to Colin Clive and Peter Cushing his take on the character is not overly memorable. Robert De Niro is superb as always. But there's a reason why film versions of Frankenstein lend themselves towards melodrama. This is a good film but not a great one, simply because the source material doesn't really lend itself to a straight adaptation.

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