I know you shouldn’t pre-judge, but I was preparing to get angry at VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN. I do try and avoid preconceptions, but Frankenstein feels very personal to me after dedicating an awful lot of time and effort to my MA dissertation on the numerous adaptations. Well now I’ve seen it – was I wrong to jump to conclusions? Not entirely.
The life of a hunchbacked clown (Daniel Radcliffe) is changed forever when he is rescued from the circus by Doctor Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy). Given physiotherapy, a name and a purpose in life, Igor uses his considerable surgical skills to facilitate his master’s experiments to create life from death…
I am so sick of “you know this story” as the lead-in to a reimagining. At the very least it’s condescending and seems specifically designed to justify telling a tale for the umpteenth time and pre-emptively thwart anyone criticising deviations from the source material.
As with most Frankenstein movies there are more references to the pre-war Universal series of films than there are to Mary Shelley. The Monster is brought to life with electricity, he has a flat head (“Why? / Because I like it!”), Henry Frankenstein from James Whale’s 1931 film is name-checked and Igor was not a character in any form before Bela Lugosi requested his creation for SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. OK they do drop “The Modern Prometheus” into dialogue, but this nod to the novel’s subtitle is about all that’s going for Shelley.
I will say Victor Frankenstein has incredible production design. The sets, costumes, hair and makeup, gears and mechanisms fell lived-in, grimy and gothic. Speaking of hair, I would love to know Igor’s trick to get his locks so perfect and glossy using only a cutthroat razor and a bar of soap. Igor’s imagining Da Vinci-esque anatomy diagrams over living, breathing things is a neat and well-visualised idea and the scenes of what passed for surgery in the Victorian era are shudder-inducingly convincing as well. They didn’t have that many sophisticated methods in the 1800s, but the techniques available were at once brilliant, harsh and cruel.
James McAvoy is wonderful as Frankenstein, a raving, conniving charlatan who only succeeds because of the brilliance of his assistant. It may be an unfaithful depiction of Shelley’s layered and guilt-ridden dreamer but it’s certainly an entertaining character. I wouldn’t give up him shouting about “babies in vats” at a high society function for any amount of nuance. Elsewhere, Radcliffe is just OK as our mistreated genius and there really isn’t much of anything to Andrew Scott’s zealous policeman or Igor’s would-be love interest Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay).
Scott’s Inspector Turpin is monumentally thick. Though he might not recognise the now straight-backed fugitive Igor just from a rough sketched wanted poster, he somehow still struggles to find Frankenstein, a well-known lecturer and surgeon with a daily routine even after he put on a very public demonstration that went awry. He just asks Igor again, “Get me Frankenstein” and duly he does. Another minor detail, he calls him “Mr Frankenstein” and I don’t think even the most inept and god-fearing cop would ignore a suspect’s title in the interview process.
The issue here is that the filmmakers claim to want to tell the story of Frankenstein’s under-appreciated assistant, a self-aware sideways glance on Shelley’s tale, but writer Max Landis can’t fight the temptation to tell the same old story. Victor Frankenstein is fine when it’s exploring new avenues (the colourful circus opener and Igor finding a new life for himself are the strongest elements) but when it returns to Shelley or Universal Horror it becomes quite tedious. Shelley’s themes aren’t explored in any great depth, it’s not compelling and The Monster (Spencer Wilding) itself only appears for the last set piece of the film and there only as a brute to throw his creators around for five minutes. I don’t have an issue with it not being Shelley’s verbose and conniving creature, (only Robert De Niro and Rory Kinnear have really played the character from the page so far) but if it’s going to be silent and animalistic it’s got to be in some way sympathetic as well – that’s why Boris Karloff’s pitiful child-monster worked.
A talented production design crew and McAvoy thoroughly enjoying putting the “mad” back in mad scientist are not enough to recommend Victor Frankenstein. At the very least it had to be different, but instead of focussing on the promised and potentially interesting growth of Igor as a character it gets stuck with flogging an inferior Shelley/Universal Horror homunculus. SSP