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Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) - Movie Review

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
It wants you to think there's lightning involved...

One of my favorite words that you won't find in the dictionary is "anvillicious." I can't claim to have come up with it myself--I actually heard it on a podcast years and years ago--but it is an apt description for anything that hits you over the head with its message or its style. A perfect example of something that is "anvillicious" is Kenneth Branagh's 1994 film Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. This is the kind of movie where the camera sweeps over the scene as a ridiculously loud musical score ratchets up to eleven and characters deliver lines like, "Then there's nothing left to lose," and, "Nothing but your soul!" It's absurdly over-the-top, holds absolutely nothing back, and doesn't apologize for it. I kind of want to hate it, but if I'm being perfectly honest, I unreservedly love this movie.

Let's talk for a minute about Kenneth Branagh. As a self-professed Shakespeare nerd, of course I have a lot of opinions about Mr. Branagh, which can basically be summed up as: he's a halfway decent actor who is so ludicrously self-confident he can make you believe he's Laurence Olivier. I used to make fun of him, but after his brilliantly self-depricating performance in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, I can't anymore, because he's better at making fun of himself than I could ever be. This movie--Mary Shelley's Frankenstein--is basically Kenneth Branagh unleashed. This is what happens when an overzealous actor's actor who lives for theatricality is let loose to do whatever he wants with Mary Shelley's novel. God bless Francis Ford Coppola and American Zoetrope for giving him the chance.

The script--written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont (the latter of which hates this movie)--is remarkably faithful to the source material, following it much more closely than any other adaptation I've ever seen. It still makes some changes, but those changes actually work to improve upon Shelley's story instead of taking away from it. There's some time compression--with the monster cleverly explaining away how he is able to become intelligent so quickly by hypothesizing that he is remembering rather than learning--and there is one rather dramatic addition to the climax that makes so much sense it's frankly astonishing it's not in the novel. I can't fault any of these changes, though there are some pacing issues that are probably more a result of editing than they are parts of the script.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Let's be honest here: completely unhinged Branagh is the best Branagh

Just in terms of writing, then, this movie should be lauded. It proves that Shelley's story does work, that a faithful adaptation need not change the core plot. Indeed, even though I will not try to argue that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is even close to being better than 1931's Frankenstein, I feel that this script captures the dynamic between the two main characters far better than any other. It gets Frankenstein and his monster absolutely correct, and just through their respective character arcs, all of the story's thematic underpinnings pour forth. Granted, the dialogue is at times ridiculously over-earnest, but that fits perfectly with the style of the movie on the screen.

Don't get me wrong; it would be easy to pick on this film. There's one moment near the end that's supposed to be horrifying and poignant but is unintentionally hilarious: a person on fire runs down a hallway, and along the way, the hallway inexplicably explodes, climaxing in the fiery eruption of the entire building. By this point in the movie, you've either signed on to the bombastic sensationalism or you haven't. You've either accepted that this is a hyper-stylized, in-your-face melodrama, or you're mesmerized by the absurdity of it all. I don't think there's any inbetween. If you don't like this movie, I seriously can't blame you.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
A face not even a mother could love

Still, there is some amazing filmmaking going on here. The make-up effects are phenomenal--they were robbed of their well-deserved Oscar by Ed Wood, another film I adore--and the acting talent that Branagh managed to assemble is nothing short of staggering. In addition to Branagh, there's Robert De Niro as the monster, Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth, Tom Hulce as Henry Clerval, Ian Holm as the Baron, Aidan Quinn as the Northerly-obsessed ship captain, an almost unrecognizable John Cleese as Professor Waldman, and Robert Hardy as Professer Krempe. They all turn in incredible performances, even as the film requires them to go completely histrionic.

De Niro, in particular, does some of his best work here. This was back when he was still trying to push himself as an actor--right before his peak with Casino and Heat--and he does things as Frankenstein's monster that I wouldn't have expected the actor to be capable of. He absolutely nails the creature's transformation from pathetic innocent to cunning monstrosity while saddled with intense facial prosthetics. I daresay that, in the ice cave scene between the monster and Frankenstein, De Niro even acts circles around Branagh.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Where does one go to buy bulk electric eels on short notice?

My favorite part, though, is--spoiler warning--the creation of the female monster, played by Helena Bonham Carter. This isn't in the novel, in which Frankenstein's refusal to concede to the monster's demand holds true even after his bride is killed, but it fits in perfectly with the character of Frankenstein as he was written by Shelley herself. The scene is harrowing, creepy, and terrifying, and it highlights everything that is great about this film, in addition to rounding out Frankenstein's character arc in a way that Shelley never did (and honoring the legacy of Whale's Bride of Frankenstein). Granted, the scene ends with the aforementioned hilarious explosion, but that doesn't detract from my love for it.

While Mary Shelley's Frankenstein did well at the box office and with audiences, it was critically lampooned, almost across the board. Even by nineties standards, this movie is certainly garish and overwrought, so that's probably not unexpected. Unfortunately, despite its financial success, the movie isn't talked about much these days, as it still stands in the shadow of the inarguably superior James Whale classic. I don't think that's completely fair, though, because for all its faults, being over-ambitious is far better than the alternative. Yes, it's anvillicious, but at the same time, give Branagh some credit for going all in.

-e. magill 10/29/2020

  • Frankenstein (novel)
  • Frankenstein (1931)
  • Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
  • Frankenstein: The True Story (1973)
  • Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)

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