Sunday, September 23, 2007

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

As you may know, I’m a pretty big fan of the novel Frankenstein. Put simply, I think it ranks right up there with Macbeth as one of the greatest tragedies ever written (a fitting comparison to be had here, as Branagh directs the film with all the majestic sweep of his Shakespearean adaptations). Now, while I’ve liked a number of the film adaptations of the novel, there’s never really been one that perfectly captures it (which I guess isn’t surprising, since that generally never happens with any great novel). Now, with that in mind, I have to say that Kenneth Branagh’s effort at capturing the essence of the story is, while not perfect, the best I’ve seen yet.

The first thing you notice when watching this film is the lavish attention paid to set design and the overall visual feel of the film. It’s kind of hard not to pay attention, really, when we’ve got characters walking around a room that appears to be roughly five stories tall. Had I but known that doctors make that kind of scratch, I would have had a thoroughly different major in college. Regardless, the early stages of the film are also the weakest, as Branagh realizes we’re not here to witness Victor’s childhood, and so rushes us along at such a breakneck speed we largely have to be explicitly told bits of character developments, like the growing love affair between Victor and Elizabeth, because the movie is barreling toward Frankenstein’s first experiments and is unwilling to slow down until then (Indeed, he rushes the beginning so much that he failed to notice that his opening Star Wars-ish text crawl dates the movie to the early 19th century, then immediately afterward telling us the film ends in 1794). Once it finally does come time for the grand experiment, though, Branagh finally lets us begin to savor things, such as the joyously elaborate setup of his lab, which manages to look a good deal more like a lab of that time period might have than any of the other Frankenstein movies I’ve seen. What follows should be well-known to anyone familiar with the novel, as the film adheres pretty closely, but let me just say that the film is cast perfectly, with Branagh doing a great job in the title role as a brilliant young doctor who is tragically fully aware of his brilliance and doesn’t mind flaunting it, and Robert DeNiro perfectly capturing the almost crippling emotional outbursts and great sorrow of the Monster.

Never is this better used than in the second real meeting of the two, in the ice-covered mountains near Frankenstein’s home in Geneva, as the Monster sits him down to ask him some painful questions about his creation, and of Frankenstein’s treatment of him. Just look at his quiet anger and pain as he spits out questions like, “What of my soul? Do I have one? Or is that a part you left out?” It’s a role that’s been unjustly forgotten by DeNiro fans, as he manages a level of drama here that stands, if not quite at the same level, then at least within spitting distance of his more famous roles with Scorsese. If Branagh doesn’t quite match him, well, it’s a pretty damn hard performance to quite match up to.

No, this film is not perfect. In his efforts to capture the novel, he has still been forced to cut out parts of it for time and pacing reasons. Still, it is a powerfully moving film, and one that actually had me getting a little weepy-eyed at the painful climax because I revert into a ten year old girl when I watch movies. This is something everyone should see. And read the book when you’re done, if you’re one of those sad few who haven’t done so yet.

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