At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein “94”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Gothic Sci-Fi Horror/Stars: Robert De Niro, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hulce, Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, John Cleese, Aidan Quinn, Richard Briers, Robert Hardy, Trevyn McDowell, Celia Imrie, Cherie Lunghi, Ryan Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Jenny Galloway, Patrick Doyle, Alex Lowe, Stuart Hazeldine, Fay Ripley, Rory Jennings, Hannah Taylor Gordon, Christina Cuttall, Charles Wyn-Davies/ Runtime: 123 minutes

I think it should be said that the saga of one Victor Frankenstein and his dogged quest to bring life forth where life had previously been extinguished is one of the more heartwrenching stories in all of literature. This is because not only is this story one about the very core of humanity, but it also is one that deals with the cost one must pay if one wishes to answer questions that man was not meant to answer only to then reject the answer when it doesn’t fit what they had assumed it would be. Most intriguing of all however is the fact that the monster at the heart of the story is not just a monster, but also worthy of our sympathy and pity. A feat made possible since, despite his monstrous exterior and behavior, he is still an entity trying to make his way in the world even as said world looks down on him because of how he looks. Yet I feel the same should also be said of his creator since, despite not being hideous on the outside, there can be no denying that a lot of the actions committed by Dr. Frankenstein in the story are just as monstrous and hideous as his creation’s exterior appearance. Even with that knowledge in mind however we still pity the man because we know he is inherently a good man and because we can relate to what is driving him to go down these roads that man was perhaps not meant to traverse. Yet despite many feeling the defining take on this legendary story is the one Universal gave us in 1931, and rightfully so, I do feel that there is one that might deserve a second glance. That of course being the slice of cinema known as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from 1994 and which may just be the most underrated take on this iconic narrative to date. Indeed equipped with a pair of top-notch performances from both Kenneth Branagh and Robert De Niro as well as a game supporting cast, make-up effects that are truly remarkable, equally stylish yet also purposefully gloomy design work in terms of both sets and costumes, and an pull no punches look at what it means to be human from 2 distinct points of view all while both embark on the same odyssey to be accepted by the world, this is one film that manages, despite its menagerie of faults, to succeed where it needs to most.

The plot is as follows: An adaptation of the classic story by iconic Gothic writer Mary Shelley, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein gets underway as we see an ambitious seafaring expedition to the North Pole has gone horribly wrong to the point that the ship is stuck in the ice and the crew is on the verge of mutiny. However things soon take a turn for the chilling when weird noises are heard followed by a strange and mysterious man showing up on board as….something outside on the ice viciously and brutally massacres the crew’s collection of dogs. Upon being pressed by the captain for information, the stranger reveals his name to be one Victor Frankenstein (Not Frank-en-steen, but kudos to you if you get the reference) and he soon starts regaling us, and the captain, with quite the extraordinary tale. From there the film flashes back to when young Frankenstein first meets the love of his life, a girl named Elizabeth, when she comes to live with his family, the tragic loss of his mother (a loss that would serve as the catalyst for the path our “hero” eventually embarks upon, and his eventual leaving home to attend med school and become a prestigious doctor much in the vein as his dear ol’ dad Baron Alphonse. Upon entering medical school however, we see that Victor and a classmate/close friend of his by the name of Henry are taken under the wing of the secretive yet brilliant Professor Waldman. Professor Waldman, we soon perceive had been conducting experiments that go against the medical norm of the day specifically in their ambition to bring something dead back to life only to abandon such pursuits out of a sense of dread for what might eventually come from them. However following an untimely tragedy, we see our young and ambitious hero decide to pick up where his mentor left off and see if he can make the experiment work. Of course, as we all know when man chooses to play God then man must be prepared for any consequences and/or fallout that may occur as a result. A lesson that I promise you our young Dr. Frankenstein is most assuredly going to learn, but not before he learns the properties of terror and the most basic ingredients of the worst kind of heartache imaginable….

Now to some degree it is worth noting that this slice of cinema aims to examine the perils which can arise from unchecked drive. With that said though, the film is also an ingenious analysis of the human element from the point of view of a pair of people: one who sees the world as how he aspires it could be, and the other for the grim reality. Indeed as we are able to see our hero’s fixation on what he is trying to achieve manages to completely overwhelm him and anything else to the point that he severely loses sight of not just the world and those he loves, but also the fallout on a number of levels his research could and actually does bring forth. On the opposite side of the coin however, we see the monster set out to try and discover who he is and his purpose only to find hostility, pain, and tragedy. It is with that in mind that the second act of this movie is where it is at its finest since it acts as the element that reinforces the thematic concepts the movie is operating with whilst also showing us where things are headed. It is in this act that we see the creature come to the aid of a family whose animal shelter is where he is hiding. Yet despite being in hiding, we see the creature come to learn about the goodness of humanity from them especially from the old hard of sight man who is the head of the family. A man who, due to his lack of sight, views the creature not by appearance, but by what’s in the creature’s heart and soul unlike the rest of the world who treat him with rancor and hostility because of reasons of a superficial nature. It is this heartwrenching look at how both man and the world around him view each other which is, more than anything else, the beating heart of the novel and one that this adaptation captures wonderfully.

I guess I should also point out how much I appreciate this movie’s visual flair for actually feeling like a loving throwback the iconic monster movies of ol whilst also utilizing a fair amount of modern moviemaking tricks that fit the thematic concepts of the narrative brilliantly. Perhaps one of the more delightful updates is the phenomenally done make-up in bringing the creature to life. Other than that however, praise must be given to this film for maintaining a no-frills and classic vibe and look that depends on the power of its talented cast and gripping narrative to keep the movie goer riveted. Yes this movie is in possession of some quite extravagant work by the set and costume departments, but this work merely is there to aid in reinforcing the mood and tone as well as the thematic concept of death on both a physical and perhaps even psychological level as well that the movie operates with. It should also be noted that immensely talented thespian Kenneth Branagh does a wonderful job at not only helming the movie, but also in the lead role. Indeed, much in the vein of the titular character, Branagh’s helmsmanship is very resolute, strong, and confident. Yet even though Branagh’s take on the character eventually gives way to ambition and grief-stricken madness, his helmsmanship is still able to be as on point and potent as the film requires it to be. Now I will admit that, despite my reservations, in the role of the monster legendary actor Robert De Niro actually does give a fairly good performance. I mean don’t get me wrong: it’s not the kind of performance that is made great by the wonderful make up effects that have been placed on the actor. Rather, it’s his dialogue delivery, a few little physical tics here and there, and how the character perceives himself that is what is so phenomenal here and it’s also these things that help to ensure De Niro’s work is on the same level of Branagh’s. Yes this pair are playing complete opposites in many respects, but it’s their hunt to try and make their own mark on the world that proves to be the thing that ties them together even in the face of their radically different ways of accomplishing said goal. Finally, this slice of cinema is also blessed with a collection of support performances that from the wonderful Helena Bonham Carter and Ian Holm to a surprisingly low key yet still effective John Cleese all manage to do wonderful work both in their respective parts and in bringing the world of this tale vividly to life.

All in all I can’t lie to you dear reader: even in the face of its collection of flaws, iconic film helmer/writer/actor Kenneth Branagh’s bold 1994 stab on Mary Shelley’s timeless story is a, within reason, successful cautionary narrative about the fallout of mankind trying its darnedest to achieve things that perhaps we aren’t meant to achieve to say nothing of the real monsters that exist in this world namely copious amounts of pride as well as how truly inhumane we as people can truly be to other human beings. Yet Branagh’s style, as operatic, grand, and undeniably stylish as it may be, is one that can also borderline on being unintentionally hilarious if taken too far. It is in that arena therefore that we see Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein come perilously close on more than one occasion to crossing that proverbial line and almost wind up becoming an unintentional comedy. Still the work from the cinematography department is quite extraordinary and distinct (though when you realize this is from the same cinematographer who worked on Terry Gilliam’s Brazil from 1985 some of these shots start to seem familiar), there is a fair amount of energy to spare here with props being given to Patrick Doyle for his riveting musical accompaniment, the work done by Tim Harvey and James Acheson in terms of set design and costuming respectively, and of course the performances from Branagh and his undeniably talented cast of co-stars are undeniably impressive. Ultimately however, perhaps the biggest detriment that this slice of cinema is saddled with is the fact that it is trying too hard, but honestly that’s really not such a bad thing when you get right down to the nitty gritty of it all. I mean at the end of the day this timeless tale is still one of THE (alongside perhaps Dracula by Bram Stoker, the stories of Henry James, and the works of one Edgar Allan Poe) defining entries in the realm of Gothic Horror and Branagh is able to brilliantly get as much out of its timeless and long lasting relevance as he possibly can. Thus it might be half dead in certain aspects, but in the areas where it counts it most assuredly can be said that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from 1994 is, to paraphrase an iconic line “ALIVE!!!!!”Make of that therefore what thou will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein “94” a solid 3.5 out of 5.