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Mary Shelleys Frankenstein (4K Ultra HD)
A friend and I recently discussed why I have lukewarm feelings about Kenneth Branagh's 1994 horror drama Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The British actor and filmmaker has adapted numerous written works for the screen, including Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet and Murder on the Orient Express, and Branagh tends to be slavishly loyal to the novels and plays he adapts. For a film adaptation to work, it has to use its source as inspiration to create cinematic magic. The best adaptations celebrate their sources while giving viewers a reason to see a visual depiction of the narrative. There are numerous examples of such adaptations, with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Lord of the Rings and Dune coming to mind. Frank Darabont called he and Steph Lady's screenplay one of his best for one of the worst movies he has ever seen, dogging Branagh for crafting a film that is both bombastic and turgid. I cannot disagree; Frankenstein offers lavish sets, intricate costumes and a showy Patrick Doyle score, but the entire affair simultaneously lacks subtlety and causes my eyelids to droop. Though Robert De Niro is memorable as Frankenstein's Monster, this adaptation fails its source material by failing to give it new life.
The story is told in flashbacks after a captain leading a North Pole expedition stumbles upon Victor Frankenstein (Branagh), who is searching the Arctic for his Creation (De Niro). We learn that Frankenstein vowed in youth to find a way to conquer death after his mother died giving birth to his brother. Years later, Victor and friend Henry Clerval (Tom Hucle) study under Professor Shmael Augustus Waldman (John Cleese), who theorizes about creating life. During a cholera outbreak, Waldman is murdered by a patient and his killer is hanged in the town square. Using the late professor's notes, Victor uses the killer's body, a cholera victim's leg, Waldman's brain and strange chemicals to create a creature. Once he gives it life using electricity, Victor is appalled at the creature's hideous appearance and tries to kill it. The creature flees Victor's lab and takes refuge in a family's country barn, where it learns to speak. Victor returns to Geneva, Switzerland, to marry longtime love Elizabeth Lavenza (Helena Bonham Carter), while the creature learns from Victor's journal about his creation. Furious to have been brought into a world of people that fear and hate it, the creature vows to hunt down and kill Victor.
While it has been called one of the more faithful adaptations of Shelley's novel, Branagh's Frankenstein certainly also humanizes Dr. Frankenstein. As depicted here, Victor is no lunatic mad scientist, but a man shaped by tragedy that understands the gravity of his choices and mourns and regrets those actions. I just wish the film was better at depicting this internal conflict. Unmistakably shot in 1994, Frankenstein features bombastic musical cues, wildly panning camera work and absolutely zero tension. There are moments of shocking violence, sure, but none of it has an impact because Branagh is so intent on blasting score through every possible suspenseful moment. There are over-the-top laboratory sequences, an awkward wrestling match between Victor and his creature, and a still-beating heart ripped from a chest; moments that clash heartily with the stilted dialogue and boring exposition of other scenes.
The story feels like it takes forever to get going but, once it does, Frankenstein rushes through the remainder of its narrative, barely stopping to breathe as Victor bounces from one conflict to the next. Branagh gives a good performance here, but De Niro and Bonham Carter are more memorable for their emotional performances in creature makeup. Even these supporting characters are often cast to the side while the film swirls around the countryside with Victor, and perhaps Branagh was a little too assured of his own talents when making Frankenstein to take constructive criticism. Branagh publicly bickered with Darabont, as well as producer Frances Ford Coppola during the production, and perhaps he should have taken more guidance from his talented coworkers. Frankenstein, like the pitiful creature, feels cobbled together and confused about what it wants to be.
THE 4K ULTRA HD:
Arrow Video releases Frankenstein on 4K using Sony's restoration with a 1.85:1/2160p/HEVC/H.265 image with Dolby Vision and HDR10 from a native 4K source. This is a decent upgrade but one that is not without issue. The opening moments in the Arctic look very rough, soft and clumpy, perhaps due to some compression or filtering issues. Once things return to civilization, the image quality improves significantly. The film was shot in a flat, somewhat dream-like manner on 35mm and is not necessarily the most attractive presentation I have seen. That said, this 4K offers significant fine-object detail and texture; the small details on the lavish costumes and in set dressings are readily apparent. The grain is thick at times, though the image is pleasantly free from digital scrubbing. The HDR pass is largely effective, though I noticed some skin tones that appeared a bit too rosy and some colors that appeared unnaturally bold. Black levels are decent, with abundant shadow detail, and dynamic sequences with fire and rain all look fantastic in motion. I noticed no issues with print damage, and image fidelity is good.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix comes from a 2009 restoration from the original 35mm magnetic tracks. I found both this and the 2.0 LPCM mix to be mastered at a somewhat low volume, and there are moments when dialogue is threatened to get lost amid the bombastic score and action effects. The mix is decently immersive, with Victor's laboratory humming and vibrating across the sound field. The LFE kicks in when called upon and the score is given plenty of (and sometimes too much) bass backup. English SDH subtitles are included.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release includes the film and extras on a 4K UHD disc that arrives inside a clear Blu-ray case with two-sided artwork and a multi-page booklet with essay and technical information. Extras include an Audio Commentary by Michael Brooke and Johnny Mains, both are film historians; Mary Shelley and the Creation of the Monster (29:37/HD) sees three British horror specialists discuss the novel and its adaptations; Dissecting Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (15:32/HD) details the differences between the source material and the film; Frankenstein (1910) (12:55/HD) is the first, silent adaptation of the novel; and Interviews (41:55 total/HD) offer comments from the costume designer, composter and make-up artist in three separate segments. You also get two Trailers (3:22 total/HD) and an Image Gallery (2:40/HD).
I am not a big fan of Kenneth Branagh's 1994 horror drama Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It is both overwrought and dull, though there are occasional sparks of life in Robert De Niro's creature. Arrow Video's new 4K Ultra HD release is Recommended, but only for fans of the film. The release offers decent tech specs and some solid bonus materials.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.