If you know Kenneth Branagh's work, you know he has the irrepressible penchant for grand themes and sense of high drama that lend themselves as well to spirited adaptations of Shakespeare as to unabashed pop melodrama. So when his much-heralded adaptation of Frankenstein first hits the screen, you find yourself a little queasy with anticipation. After all the box-office hits and Orson Welles comparisons, isn't the boy due to let us down? But the potential, and the promise....
The performances, of course, are grand. Branagh directs himself with panache, and Robert DeNiro is, even under his hideous creature makeup, unmistakably DeNiro. As the monster, he is both menacing and undeniably tragic, but no real surprise here. Still, the film could have been a disaster had the role been given to a less-talented actor. Tom Hulce reminds one immediately of his role in Amadeus, but his presence is welcome. Helena Bonham Carter at first has little to do, but by the end of the film has given an affecting performance in a role which could easily have been maudlin, overbaked, or--worse--inconsequential. John Cleese truly has little to do, but his presence, too, charms the film fan.
Sadly (but perhaps unavoidably), the first third of the film seems a bit of a mess. Specifically, Branagh's task is to introduce the character of Victor Frankenstein, establish his obsession with the very nature of life and death, set up the intellectual and ideological conflict between Victor and the academic establishment, and somehow manage to build up to a rousing creation scene ("It's alive ... alive") all within the narrow bounds of the film's first act. So we have spinning cameras, odd shots through wide-angle lenses, weird jump cuts and dissolves, all of which propel the story along at a feverish pitch. Branagh is a virtuoso, but the audience spends this portion of the film oddly detached. Perhaps it doesn't matter; more or less, we all know the story.
The rest is much better. Especially in the final act, Branagh affords the characters the development and depth that was denied them early on. It's hard to tell how much of this structure was dictated by the script and how much was Branagh's work at cutting down the film to a manageable length--just over two hours, as it happens. DeNiro's creature stands in dark and humanitarian contrast to Boris Karloff's classic Big Dummy, but film buffs who have never read Shelley's novel may be surprised at how much the original Frankenstein (and one of its sequels) dovetails with this one. At face value, the two films are very different, but they have many of the same concerns at heart.
The drama of terror and loss that caps this production of the story more than makes up for the bland expository scenes that precede it. Little more needs to be said, except that at least one of Branagh's wrenching scenes of hypercinema, a public hanging, is among the most spectacular in film history.
No, wait--one more thing needs to be said--the score by Patrick Doyle is not necessarily bad, but it is obtrusive and unwelcome. Perhaps the SDDS auditorium I saw the film in insinuated the music too deep into my consciousness, but I kept wishing Branagh and his monster could just have a quite moment alone, without the damn strings singing songs of impending doom. Branagh builds up that sense of impending doom quite credibly without help from the orchestra pit, thank you very much.
In total, this is a more restrained and emotionally honest horror adaptation than Coppola's previous production of Bram Stoker's Dracula (which any goth aficionado will tell you was anything but). It stands up well against Branagh's earlier work, but has neither the unbridled sense of fun that drove Dead Again or the complete mastery of its material that made Much Ado About Nothing a blast. It does, however, suggest that Branagh is a filmmaker who is continually extending his reach and truly seeks to reinterpret source material in a uniquely cinematic language.