The tale of the man and the monster has been told countless times in cinema either directly or by taking the main elements of the story and tailoring them as required. In 1995, Kenneth Branagh was at the top of his game. His film and stage career were in the ascendancy and he could pretty much do as he wanted on the screen. What he chose was to be able to bring to the screen a faithful and extravagant adaptation of Frankenstein by the author Mary Shelley.
When an explorer, Doctor Robert Walton (Aidan Quinn) finds his ship caught in the ice in the Arctic, the last thing he expects to see is a man coming out of the fog. He is being pursued by a mysterious beast. He proceeds to tell a tale of how he came to be in such a God forsaken place. The story takes us back to the young Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) who after the death of his mother dedicates himself to science and medicine. He wants to stop death and disease and feels he can do this by creating new life. As a medical student in Ingolstadt, he learns of the radical experiments of Professor Waldman (John Cleese). After Waldman’s untimely death Frankenstein takes the notes from the dead professor and sets about creating a man. What could possibly go wrong with that?
This film can be looked at in two ways. Either it can be regarded as a faithful adaptation of the source material which plays out like a melodrama. Or it’s a real mess of a movie that has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. For me, it’s closer to the latter than the former. I can fully understand Branagh’s intentions in the way he staged it. It is overly melodramatic to the point of farce. Indeed some more comedic versions of the story have shown more restraint than this. Right from the off, in the Arctic the tone is set for an overwrought meeting of Walton and Frankenstein. Totally over the top. It does not get much better as the movie progresses.
In the guise of director, Branagh goes a bit over the top. He takes advantage of distracting camera angles and swooping shots to emphasis drama and peril. This only serves to distract the viewer from the story he is attempting to convey. The elaborate staging does not look or feel natural in any way. It comes across like a movie sound stage. The film could have done with a bit more location shooting to provide a bit more of an atmosphere. He was just trying to stay faithful to the text while trying to achieve a modern take on the Universal horror films. One way to attain this would be to film it in black and white. It would have provided a bit of an atmosphere at least.
For a cast of such distinguished actors, the performances are not great. It could have something to do with the poor dialogue they were forced to utter. It is just a bit silly. The lines are disjointed and the scenes have no flow to them. It contributes to a very frustrating view. The actors all are a bit stilted. No one is comfortable in their character. The worst is Robert De Niro. You would have thought that with his talent like he would have excelled in the role of the monster, but even De Niro has issues with his character. For some reason the monster when speaking starts to slip into a Brooklyn accent. It doesn’t help that the monster make up is a bit rubbish and the way the monster moves makes him look more daft than menacing.
Overall a bit of a wasted opportunity. Kenneth Branagh has shown on countless occasions that he is an excellent film maker, but it seems he seriously dropped the ball on this one. Avoid.