It’s surprising how quickly “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” becomes a vanity project for director Kenneth Branagh. Rather than a tale of a monster wreaking havoc on his master, the film feels more like Jane Austen co-starring the monster who is kind of a nuisance and then becomes a threat to his creator. I’ve rarely seen Frankenstein movies where the creature is the third banana, but lo and behold Branagh pulls it off in what is more a film about Victor Frankenstein having a lover’s spat with his wife, who discovers her husband has committed some evil selfish acts. To his credit though, Victor Frankenstein is no hero. He’s selfish, self-centered, and has a God complex, but Branagh is very obsessed with chewing the scenery. So much so that he even manages to outdo Robert DeNiro.
And he dons gruesome make up and is supposed to garner the most compelling plot of the narrative. DeNiro seems to try and salvage the character with what Branagh gives him, but he doesn’t quite pull off an empathetic or interesting performance. Surely Boris Karloff’s adaptation wasn’t very loyal to the original novel, but his portrayal of the monster was gut wrenching and menacing. DeNiro’s design as the creature is bland and lacking in character, while his performance only really becomes a highlight when he gains enough intellect to rival Victor Frankenstein’s own ego. The narrative isn’t completely unsalvageable as the monster is given some screen time to build his character and show how he transforms from a mindless beast in to a fully formed individual with his own idea about the world. He sees the best and the worst of humanity through one farming family living deep in the woods.
He’s so taken with their love he begins helping them survive in secret, even gaining the love of their children. That all comes crashing down when a rent collector violently interrupts the monster’s sanctuary, prompting the monster to understand how evil human beings can be. It’s just that even the monster takes a back seat to a lot of over exposition on the relationship between Victor and his wife Elizabeth, as played by Helena Bonham Carter. Branagh is also very anxious to depict himself in the buff, or bare chested for most of his time playing the character of Victor Frankenstein, and his chewing of the scenery becomes relentless. “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” isn’t the worst adaptation of them all, but it definitely could have benefitted from more focus on the dual monsters of Victor and the creature, and less on being just about Victor’s life and romance with his dark past rising to the surface.