Branagh’s Frankenstein reappraised: Sympathetic, but flawed

With the recent release of Coriolanus in theatres across the country, I recently found myself going through the back catalogue of one of this generation’s most respected Shakespearian actors, Kenneth Branagh. When it comes to adapting the bard’s tales onto the silver screen, his versions of Hamlet and Henry V are often cited as the epitome of how one should handle the material. However, within his body of directorial work lies an equally theatrical, although at times misguided, attempt to grapple with subjects from a diverse set of sources. From the camp and pomp of his adaptation of The Magic Flute to the gothic horror of Frankenstein, Branagh demonstrates an impassioned resolve in attempting to transpose the traditional corpus of classical works into the modern era.

Whilst spending my New Year’s break visiting friends in Geneva, by happy accident I began to read Mary Shelley’s Modern Prometheus. Having walked along the banks of Lake Léman and seen the peaks of Mont Blanc cresting over the horizon, it was easy to get lost within the novel. All the more so as Victor and Clerval passed through Oxford and found themselves both charmed by the dreaming spires and amused at the eccentricities on display, much as I myself was on first arrival. After hungrily devouring the book, I was eager to see how such a tale might translate under Kenneth’s Branagh’s direction.

In the end, like the monster itself, the film is a disparate patchwork of conflicting elements. Whether it’s the constantly shifting tone or the insertion of new elements not found in the original text, Branagh’s version is a stumbling, heaving contradiction that, somehow, manages to win you over. Never before have I seen a work veer from pathos to bathos so haphazardly, often managing both the ridiculous and the sublime within a single scene.

Out of the changes made, some are merely stylistic while others become melded onto the very heart of the story. Frank Darabont (writer of Shawshank Redemption and Green Mile fame) and Branagh’s script abandons Shelley’s elegant, if highly literary, prose for something more modern and, unfortunately, wooden and un-relatable. However, the most fundamental change comes in the determinism thrust upon the creature’s creation. While the novel has Victor create a new being from dead matter, the film imbues him with the ability to revive not just the form, but also its thoughts and feelings. As a creation pieced together from the bodies of murderers and thieves, so the monster takes upon those attributes.

From a philosophical point of view, such an addition creates a moral quandary at odds with the narrative presented in the 19th century original. In it, the creature is shaped through his experiences with man and is made a monster, not born one. Yet, in his re-envisioning, Branagh has him doomed from the outset through his origin and, as a result, a far less sympathetic character. The make-up layered thickly on Robert De Niro as the monster doesn’t help the issue, limiting facial motion and making it hard for him to add any real nuance to the performance.

That being said, the theatricality at the heart of the production doesn’t seem at odds with the gothic romanticism of Shelley’s novels and there are scenes that astound as much as confound. While wildly divergent from the classic story, the way Branagh handles the monster’s bride sews together the newly introduced ideas and culminates in the film’s best scene. It also serves as full justification for the choice of Helena Bonham Carter as an almost unrecognizable Elizabeth.

One of the novel’s defining legacies was in its portrayal of Frankenstein’s creation in a sympathetic light, despite its inherent monstrosity. Perhaps then, the legacy of Branagh’s adaptation will be much the same, as a film that earns your sympathies in spite of its apparent failings.

By Vitor de Magalhaes