Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott, Charles Dance
Director: Paul McGuigan
Writer: Max Landis
Frankenstein, one of my favourite novels, is a tale that has ben retold time and time again in cinema. As the title makes clear this latest take on the iconic horror story places its focus on the titular doctor of Mary Shelley’s novel rather than on the creature he creates. Although it’s the creature who usually gets all of the attention, the story of his creator is just as fascinating and compelling. Victor Frankenstein is a scientific genius driven by his fervent ambition to defeat death. He becomes so obsessed with the very idea of creating another living man that he never stops to ask himself if he should. As he beholds his creation in all of its grotesqueness and ungodliness he rejects and abandons it, unaware of the dire consequences his action will have. By creating this monster Frankenstein must confront the question of man’s place in the universe, of his responsibility for the creature and its actions, and of the moral implications and ramifications that come with creating life. Although I believe the film’s screenwriter understands all of this, I still found his approach to the mythos to be ultimately misguided.
The story is depicted from the perspective of Igor Strausman (Daniel Radcliffe), a hunchbacked circus performer whom Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) rescues from a life of subjugation and ridicule. Frankenstein takes Igor under his wing and enlists him as his assistant in his groundbreaking work. Together they hope to uncover the secrets to life and death and create a living being. The secretive nature of this project and Frankenstein’s notorious reputation catch the attention of Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott), a religiously devoted police officer with severe moral objections to Frankenstein’s work. Igor also catches the attention of Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay), the subject of his affection who entreats Igor to follow his conscience and not be corrupted by his master and mentor. As Frankenstein’s obsession drives him to greater and more damaging extremes, it falls onto Igor to try and save his friend from the madness he has wrought.
The film borrows lightly from Shelley’s original novel but adds its own twist to it as a means of updating the story. Updating the story is all well and good but it becomes a problem when the updates do not compliment the story. This film tries to incorporate several new elements including Igor’s love interest, the religious policeman, a benefactor with his own sinister motivations, a backstory accounting for Frankenstein’s obsession and an original experiment preceding the infamous one in the novel. The problem is that the film becomes so muddled with all of these interweaving subplots that the story ends up trying to be several different things at once. It is difficult to become invested in a film when it keeps jumping all over the place and keeps changing its characters at the flip of a coin in order to keep the plot moving forward. Any time the film took a step forward it never felt earned because it never felt like a natural progression in the story. All of this results in a climax that was so messy and convoluted that I simply couldn’t keep up with what was happening.
There are certainly some promising ideas in this film that could have been good had they been given the proper development. However the film takes on so many of them that it doesn’t have the time it needs to realise them all. I like the idea of using Igor as a window into Frankenstein’s obsession and madness but felt that the relationship between the two was lacking. Both actors do decent jobs in their respective roles and there is definitely a chemistry there but the characters themselves are so changeable in their emotions and motivations that nothing is ever given the time to sink in. Any one of the side characters could have added an interesting element to the story had the film devoted more time to them. This isn’t the case however as the film leaves them all underdeveloped in order to incorporate other elements into the plot. Even the film’s tone jumps all over the place as it tries to be a gothic horror, a sci-fi epic, a costume drama and a buddy movie all at once.
The bottom line is that there is too much going on and not enough time to do it all in, not even with the talent that worked on this film. With a little more focus and control the parts of the films that showed promise could have been allowed to flourish. What we get instead is a confused, near-incomprehensible mess. The new ideas that the film tries to introduce to this classic tale hurt the story more than they help it and end up coming across as familiar, insipid or just plain silly. The film is at least visually stimulating and McAvoy is sometimes enjoyably over-the-top as his character becomes more depraved and unhinged. The film as a whole however is a disorderly fiasco with too many ideas and not enough thought.