Kenneth Branagh revives a classic property and then kills it again in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, an attempt to elevate itself over previous adaptations by including the talent’s name in the title, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Interior Design Masters with Alan Carr.
Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a companion piece of sorts to Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a relatively successful effort at a Universal Monsters reboot in that they got as far as two films. They also share a hysterical, operatic tone, pitched somewhere between the volleyball scene in Top Gun and the boat wreck in Titanic, along with some distinctly ’90s casting decisions.
Where Dracula had Keanu Reeves, Frankenstein stars Robert De Niro as the creature, and it’s pretty much as strange as it sounds. John Cleese plays Frankenstein’s mentor who gets stabbed by an anti-vaxxer, while Branagh is the eponymous Swiss scientist daring to punch the face of god like William Shatner before him. Igor is conspicuous by his absence, especially when Victor is explaining the plot aloud in empty rooms, though this could just be Branagh directing himself.
Branagh seems no more up to multitasking than the doctor, who keeps putting off marrying his sister (Helena Bonham Carter) to experiment on corpses, a lesson about man’s limitations: we can only subvert one law of nature at a time. As a director he keeps the camera spinning constantly to accompany the bombastic strings and feverish performances, creating a feast of hammy acting and Swiss cheese.
Every interesting moment is instantly undermined by someone yelling, “It’s alive!” or “I will have revenge!” or “Frankenstein!” just in case we forgot what we were watching and thought Poirot had been huffing formaldehyde. Certain choices are downright baffling: Victor’s use of electric eels to reanimate cadavers is one step away from Catwoman‘s rejuvenation by magic cats, to say nothing of the sequence in which he wrestles shirtless with the monster in what looks like a pool of oil.
Screenwriter Frank Darabont called it “the best script I ever wrote and the worst movie I’ve ever seen,” blaming the director for this Frankensteinian mishmash of styles. Branagh bolts together the lavishness of a costume drama, a wraparound indebted to John Carpenter’s The Thing, and a Creature from the Bronx, which sounds like a much better B movie. De Niro is surprisingly effective in places, aided by high-end prosthetics, but his method monster falls prey to mindless execution.
Despite some striking scenes and a script that understands the source material, Branagh indulges the kind of wrongheaded hubris Shelley was warning against, making her inclusion in the title as ironic as the film proves moronic.