Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Weeks Too Late: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, Kenneth Branagh & Kenneth Branagh & Written by Steph Lady & Frank Darabont.

Aside: It's a Halloween Spooktacular! That's right, for our dual review over your favourite holiday and mine, we're doing Frankenstein. Alright, alright, who am I kidding? We do monster movies for most of our tandem work, but this is the one time of year where it's seasonal...far less so than a stirring Christmas review of say, Dracula 2000, so go along with us.
Preconceptions: As usual, I had plenty of advanced warning about the movie and book we'd chosen to review for the end of the month. I thought I'd be a clever dick and find something a little off the beaten path and not just do the original black and white flick or Branagh's big budget version. But then I saw what there was to see off the beaten path, movies with descriptions like this:

"Two centuries after Mary Shelley's story took place, the mad scientist who made Frankenstein has figured out a way to keep himself and the creature alive. In present-day America, Detective O'Connor is investigating a slew of gruesome killings. When the trail leads her to the doctor and his creation, she discovers their bizarre development over the past 200 years as they've faced both good and evil."

So here is a stirring review of Branagh's epic Mary Shelly's Frankenstein!

General Review: I don't want to give anyone the wrong idea regarding my feelings on Branagh, I think he's an excellent actor, a top shelf director and not at all hard on the eyes. When I suggested in passing that Terry think of reviewing him, I said: "Hey, he's pretty cute when he isn't being insufferable." Naturally, her response was: "But he's always being insufferable." And this neatly brings me to my main problem with him, when he directs a movie he stars in things get a little egotistical. Alright. A lot egotistical. I know for a fact his Hamlet had so many stars and sets so lush that it could have been one of the giant 1950's studio monstrosities (like the Ten Commandments), but the camera was so far up Branagh's nose it could easily have been missed. I wish I could say that he'd put some of his ego aside in this movie about over bearing pride, I really do. But we spend, no kidding, nearly ten minutes of him scantily clad, wrestling his monster around in what might as well be oil. And we watch every flex of well toned abs and biceps. Now, I'm a woman who can enjoy a bit of well placed eye candy, but I felt the same way watching this that I do when Tarantino films his leading lady's feet: like I'm reading a magazine where the pages have stuck together. The fact that Branagh's masturbatory material is himself doesn't make this a more comfortable experience.

While I do think the man needs to be brought back down to the realm of us mere mortals, this was a better effort at modesty than some of his other films, and oil wrestling aside, I did find his ego easier to bear in this than in Hamlet. We get to see the sets fairly clearly in Frankenstein (even when he was on stage) for one thing. And while I usually try not to get too hung up on window dressing, the sets are worth mentioning in Frankenstein. I saw bits and pieces of this movie back in the long, long ago of 1994 and I had vague recollections of it being dark to the point of murkiness. I don't know what has addled my memory, but in the real world, Frankenstein was surprisingly vivid and colourful for such dark subject matter. We spend a lot of time in pretty locations and vast manors, but we aren't skimped on the mad science laboratories either.

I know it shouldn't surprise me that watching this felt a lot like seeing a good Shakespearean tragedy adaptation, except with monsters in it, but it caught me off guard. And I mean that in a good way. The story of a man being punished for reaching too far, too quickly is one that lends itself to that style of movie and for all my complaints Branagh really does shine at this type of thing. It was also nice to see Helena Bonham Carter playing a character who isn't mysterious, evil or crazy at all. I know that's become her thing, but it was a pleasant surprise to see her being a reasonable, supportive and loving character as change of pace. Another thing that I shouldn't be surprised by, but was, was John Cleese's skill at the serious role of Victor Frankenstein's mentor. No matter how many times I see him do more than just comedic acting, it just doesn't stick in my head that he can do it. The only real casting misstep is Robert De Niro as the monster and while I don't have a tremendous respect for his range, it wasn't his ability that caused the problem. They monster-ed him up hard for this role, but even under the stitches, the make-up, the prosthetics and the contacts all I could see when I looked at him was De Niro. His face is just too familiar and recognizable for me to buy him as a monster. Not to mention, he seemed rather on the small side and the camera tricks didn't beef up his height enough. Well...those problems and his voice sounded too New York-y when he was surrounded by English accents (so I guess his acting was at least partially to blame, after all).

When we weren't staring at Branagh's glistening pecs, the directorial choices were mostly good. Victor's reasons for hating death and being willing to commit abominations are hammered at us hard enough that we can almost forgive him being the most selfish man alive (though less of a whiner than in the book) and that is a hard line to walk. The mad science scenes are wonderful frantic (and they have enough brass, cogwheels and gurneys to make a steam punk connoisseur spill their tea in delight). The classic "it's alive!" shouts are present and shockingly not corny. Actually, now that I come to think of it, the death keening and "noooooo's!" are also genuine. Finally, I was also pleased that when the monster gets his bride, she isn't just a pretty girl with a few basically cosmetic scars and monotone Marge Simpson hair. Nope, she is just as messed up as he is.

I wasn't actually looking forward to watching this movie again, I figured it would be like seeing Coppola's Dracula. Nothing could be further from the truth, Frankenstein wasn't dated by the cast, the effects or the story (even more surprising given how old a chestnut this is). I found myself actually having fun watching it instead of just enduring it so that I could write the review. I think there is a pretty good chance you'll like it too.

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