It's been a lifetime since I last read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but I seem to remember imagining the voice of the Creature as gravely yet somewhat noble, not a New Yawk drawl muddled by rubbery prosthetics. The
There's little reason for this adaptation to be titled Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It's clearly Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein, and there's something intriguing about the fact that Branagh is tackling a story about a brilliant man consumed by his own arrogance and hubris as that's ultimately what skewers his own film as well. Branagh even casts himself as the brash genius Victor Frankenstein, though his shirtless, raggedly longhaired take on the good doctor is more of a pin-up idol than the obsessed scientist I remember. He's entirely too old to play such a young, idealistic doctor; there's a scene early on in which Victor's mother congratulates him on his successes but warns him about pursuing knowledge at all costs, and I honestly thought they were supposed to be husband and an expecting wife, not mother and son. The character of the novel seems like more of a cautionary tale whereas the Frankenstein of the film just doesn't want anyone else's mommy to have to die, and this lacks any sort of gravity.
Branagh fumbles to try and strike the right tone. On one hand, he wants to be doggedly loyal to the original text, but it's thorough to the point of exhaustion, really, with its first hour in particular meandering on without end. On the other, it's as much a romance as a Gothic drama or whatever it is that Branagh's aiming for, exactly. This seems to just be an excuse for Frankenstein to shoehorn in a grotesquely over-the-top finale that owes more to Stuart Gordon than Mary Shelley. Everything about Frankenstein is gratingly loud and off-key. Branagh overacts wildly and encourages his cast to do the same, he rarely resists any opportunity to toss in some more
De Niro is terrific as the Creature so long as he's looking on quietly and from a distance. He never has any sort of grasp on the dialogue, struggling with his accent and the elaborate make-up effects with dialogue like "if I can't satisfy one, I will indulge de udder". He rattles off lines like "What of my soul do I have one?" without pausing between sentences -- is he reading off cue cards? -- and questions like "who are these people of which I am comprised?" fail to elicit any emotion. I'm sure the Creature howling at the sky with lines like "I will have revenge....Frankenstein!!!!!!" are meant to make me cringe but not out of this sort of embarrassment. As detailed as the prosthetics are, the Creature really doesn't look that grotesque; De Niro could step onto the set of Great Expectations as Magwich without missing a beat. He certainly doesn't look like a creature created piecemeal from the dead, and there's nothing overwhelmingly unsettling about his appearance at all. For the son of a surgeon and a doctor himself, incidentally, Frankenstein could stand to brush up on his stitching.
Oh well. At least Helena Bonham Carter handles the role of Embattled Love Interest charmingly enough, doing the best she can with such aggressively mediocre material. Perhaps the greatest surprise, though, is an almost unrecognizable John Cleese in a rare dramatic turn. Cleese's weathered scientist speaks briefly about his own failed experiments at reanimating the dead, and he's so much more enthralling than every other aspect of the film that I'd have rather seen a prequel focusing squarely on him instead. Cleese's part is played entirely straight, although Frankenstein does take a few anemic stabs at comic relief. Maybe having another Python or two on the bill would've helped with that.
Loud, shrill, and tedious, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is as much of a lumbering abomination as the Creature himself. Not recommended.
Roger Pratt's cinematography casts Frankenstein through a soft, muted, grainy haze. The 1.85:1 image makes occasionally striking use of color -- the stark whites blanketing the Arctic, the storybook hues of Victor's childhood, and the vivid dresses of his friends as they dash across rolling green hills -- but the photography prefers to drain away much of the saturation, often to the point of an ashen gray. Clarity and fine detail tend to be rather middling, but this too seems to be a deliberate part of Frankenstein's aesthetic.
This Blu-ray release from Sony has no glaring flaws in a technical sense; the two hour film is offered a healthy bitrate and spills across both layers of this BD-50 disc. I was unable to spot any hiccups or stutters in its AVC encode, and the image isn't marred by any speckling or wear. Its visual style just doesn't lend itself to an overwhelmingly impressive high definition release, and viewers should adjust their expectations accordingly.
Even with a 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack at its disposal, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is rather underwhelming. The sort of distinctness and clarity I've come to expect out of Blu-ray is wholly lacking here. The violent waves of the Arctic crash with a dull thud, and the Creature's violent birth lacks any sort of impact. The film's dialogue has a tendency to slink to the back of the mix as well. The use of the surrounds tends to be understated -- rattling chains, roaring flames, and reverb in a lecture hall, for instance -- and they do little to heighten the intensity of Frankenstein's handful of more action-oriented sequences. The lossless audio rarely finds much use for the LFE channel either. While this all may be a deliberate part of the mixing of the film, there's little about it to indicate that I'm listening to a Blu-ray disc.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein also features DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks in French and Portuguese. The long list of subtitles includes streams in English (traditional and SDH), Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese (traditional and simplified), Indonesian, Thai, and Korean.
This Blu-ray release is BD Live-enabled but doesn't offer any extras online related to Frankenstein, nor is its original theatrical trailer among the high definition plugs scattered throughout the rest of the disc.
The Final Word
There's no way in which this adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein isn't underwhelming, really, and that extends to its lackluster release on Blu-ray. Rent It.