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Kenneth Branagh
Robert De Niro
Helena Bonham Carter
Aiden Quinn
Tom Hulce
Ian Holm
Richard Briers
John Cleese

Kenneth Branagh




Time: 123 mins.
Rating: R
Genre: Horror/Drama

Academy Award nomination for Best Makeup.

The story of Frankenstein has certainly enthralled many directors before Branagh. I guess he wanted to prove to Hollywood that he was more then a Shakesperean shill. What remains a mystery is why he would choose such lifeless material. The book might have brought chills to 19th century readers, but it's pretty tame in the 21st. No one would argue that the ideas it puts forth aren't still relevant, but in the age of cloning, they just aren't that radical anymore. What is a director to do? How does he update the material to make it shocking to 90s audiences? Blood, lots of blood. Too bad, he forgot the suspense. What he does create is a bloated, gruesome, confusing, hollow monster. Branagh got a budget to do this film that had to be over three times what he was used to dealing with and therein lies the problem. Instead of focusing on what he excels at – intense, dark characters and intriguing stories (granted he was mainly doing Shakespeare which is hard to screw up) – he obviously spent all of his time focusing on the production design, make-up, costumes and personally buffing-up for his role as Dr. Frankenstein. I've never seen a scientist who looks that good with his shirt off.

That's certainly nothing I would normally complain about, but it was fairly distracting here. Especially because this is a period piece about a man who tries to reanimate human body parts. This is a society where a little show of ankle makes a woman a whore and he's running around bare chested in a laboratory. Not bloody likely. Anyway, he makes reanimation the focus of his work after the death of his mother in childbirth. That may be a compelling reason in the real world, however, it makes him a pansy in the cinematic one. Many peoples mommie's die, but they don't go out and try to bring their rotting corpses back to life. Personally, I prefer the reasons from the 1931 version better. A God-complex is far more compelling, with much greater ramifications.

"I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine. A rage, the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satify the one, I will indulge the other."

Of course, the good doctor is worrying his family and fiancee, played by Carter, with his tireless efforts in the lab. He's clearly walking the line between science and sanity, placing himself in legal danger should he get caught illegally acquiring body parts. All of his trouble leads up to the classic reanimation scene, practically the only time Branagh and De Niro are onscreen together throughout the entire movie. What is that all about? I paid to see them throwing their acting muscles around, confronting each other with gusto and terror. What you get is a mentally challenged monster and its' fraidy cat creator. De Niro attempts to do something different with this role, but he isn't given the opportunity to make the creature anything more than your run-of-the-mill brutal monster. There are moments when humanity shines through, when you almost care about his fate. They don't last long.

The main thrust of this film should have been the relationship between this mad scientist and his creation, focusing on both his joy and horror in making his experiment work. That aspect was nowhere to be found. Dr. Frankenstein spends the rest of the film ignoring what he's done, trying to sweep it under the carpet and get on with his life. The monster merely wanders around the countryside, until it discovers how it came to be and decides to take revenge on it's creator. Bonham Carter has the thankless role as the loving fiancee turned science project. The scene where he reanimates her, expecting her to be happy with her new lease on life as the undead, is completely embarrassing. I'm sure Helena would leave this film off her resume if she could. The ending, which is nowhere to be found in the original text, confirms why this film is such a waste of time. One couldn't really expect a happy denouement, but why build something up if you're just going to destroy it later?

Something that further hinders the experience is the score, which was not only distracting, but completely inappropriate. Granted, this is a horror film, but the music didn't need to be constantly cranked up to eleven. A little subtlety would have gone a long way, enhancing the story and heightening the suspense. God forbid, there be moments of quiet contemplation. Besides Branagh's buff bod, the production design and makeup are the only things that actually work well in this film. The minute you see the lab, you know something unholy is going on there. De Niro actually looks more like a patched up man than any of the earlier Frankenstein creatures, which makes him more believable and creepy. Unfortunately, the lackluster script ruins any hope for a good scare or insight into the creature's pain.

Branagh has since gone back to doing what he does best – small, character-driven movies. If you want to see an amazing piece of filmmaking, watch HAMLET. He's clearly in his element there. I had high hopes for Branagh's blockbuster debut, but like many European directors, he wasn't up to the task. I enjoyed watching his glistening skin – apparently labs are very warm – but that just isn't enough. As a Shakesperean actor/director, he should have known not to film without a worthwhile script. This film adds nothing new or compelling to the classic tale, which should be the whole point to a retelling. If you want to see a good Frankenstein story rent the 1931 VERSION with Boris Karloff or the comedy YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN by Mel Brooks. At least, they bring something fresh and interesting to the table.

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