Frankenstein (1994) dir., Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Robert de Niro, Tom Hulce, John Cleese
By Alan Bacchus
Kenneth Branagh’s take on ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ is a big ol cinematic mess and an eyesore on Branagh's filmography. By 1994, Branagh was still a hot young director who energized Shakespeare with the vibrant and violent dramatization of Henry V, which reminded many critics of Orson Welles' strong treatment of Shakespeare in his youth.
And however grandiloquent Branagh’s nourish murder mystery ‘Dead Again’ was, it proved his worth beyond the Bard and as a slick visual stylist. Combine these pictures and Mary Shelley’s seminal novel of gothic horror and the ingredients would seem a natural fit.
Having Francis Coppola’s name attached as Executive Producer automatically links the film up with his larger-than-life operatic ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’. While Stoker’s theatrical and technical bravura worked on its own level of retro cinema revival, Branagh’s feels egotistical, bombastic and over-the-top.
Using the author’s name in the title announces that this is not a Boris Karloff version of the story we're used to – instead, a reverent dramatization of the original novel. Dr. Frankenstein, as played by Branagh, is introduced as a troubled youth traumatized by seeing his mother die during an especially bloody and graphic childbirth. In his adulthood he becomes obsessed with overcoming death and recreating life. When his mentor Professor Waldman passes on, Frankenstein steals his research and vows to complete his work on creating life.
Cue the fantastically choreographed “live live!” scene. Using stolen body parts, amniotic fluid from another woman’s water breakage, some electric eels and Gilliam-esque-designed laboratory Frankenstein gives life to his constructed monster (Robert De Niro). Eventually the momster discovers he’s been built as an experiment, gets angry, runs away and vows revenge against his maker. His ultimatum to his father – make him a bride or he’ll kill as many people as possible. Unfortunately when Frankenstein’s own wife is murdered by the monster she becomes the body whom Frankenstein will give away to appease the beast.
With maximum budgetary tools at his disposal Branagh’s like kid in a candy store screaming frantically on a sugar high with no Ritalin in sight. Even Branagh’s best films (Henry V, Hamlet) he often trips over his own inability to censor his enthusiasm for sake of drama. As much as his performance as Hamlet was deft and quiet he would often burst out with over-the-top audacious shouting. Frankenstein exaggerates all of these tendencies to the effect of screaming at the top of his lungs for 2 hours straight.
Every shot seems to begin and end with sweeping crane movements and in between dazzling us with spinning gimbaled acrobatic camera moves. Even Branagh’s physique is pumped up. Remember the innocent baby fat he hadn’t lost in Henry V? Now he’s rough and buff, with rock hard abs and pulsating veins – a new body he never seems comfortable in.
The casting of Robert De Niro is a bold bit of anti-casting which, unfortunately is mostly distracting. De Niro’s hideous make-up covers up most of his expressive facial features, and his big drape of a coat reduces the effect of his unique physicality. Saying that, the film works best in the second act detour when the monster flees his laboratory into the rural townships and befriends the local victimized family. De Niro’s tender side triumphs providing the film’s true emotional core.
Branagh’s career didn’t seem to be phased by the film’s failure. He produced his best film a couple years later – the even more ambitious four-hour full text version of Hamlet (in 70mm). Even afterward he’s continued to make his own personal films under the radar of most of top tier Hollywood. With his new gig as helmer of the new Marvel 'Thor' film, I’m curious and enthused to see what he’s learned since the days of 'Frankenstein'.