Why not Robert De Niro as the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein? This raging bull among actors is a master at probing the psyches of violent, inarticulate loners. The tormented creature that Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) constructs from dead bodies and his own overweening ego recalls another alienated and vengeful De Niro character: Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Remember Travis at his mirror asking, "Are you talking to me?" Well, Frankenstein's monster is definitely talking to De Niro, who shows the creature's pain as he tears at the hideous scars that isolate him from humanity. The moment is mesmerizing.
The movie, sad to say, is a mess. The $45 million epic looks terrific, thanks to lavish sets and costumes and whiplash editing from Andrew Marcus that might kid you into thinking the movie knows where it's going. It does not. The script by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) and newcomer Steph Lady is full of ideas – all of them half-baked.
Don't be misled by the name Mary Shelley in the title. Though the film crams in more of her 1818 novel than any of the previous Frankenstein adaptations, director Branagh is as loyal to the source as director Francis Ford Coppola was in Bram Stoker's Dracula – meaning fidelity can't compete with box-office demand for sensation. Coppola serves as a producer on this ever-so-trendy Frankenstein, which exploits science, eroticism and brutality in ways that Shelley never imagined.
Shelley was 19 when she wrote the Gothic romance, egged on by her husband-to-be, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their friend Lord Byron. The scientific age had begun, and this daughter of two of Britain's most radical literary thinkers, William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, wanted to stir things up with a blood curdler that would "speak to the mysterious fears of our nature."
The film sees Shelley's thrust as license to raise moral questions about our own age of genetic engineering. No problem there, except that Branagh rushes off to the next question before he has adequately addressed the present one. The movie spins, lurches and dazzles the senses, but it's an intellectual con game.
Ever since his thrilling 1989 splash as the director, adapter and star of Shakespeare's Henry V, the great Brit Branagh has substituted crowd pleasing for challenge with a Hitchcock riff (Dead Again), a Big Chill knockoff (Peter's Friends) and a calendar-art Bard (Much Ado About Nothing). Now he shoehorns in chunks of Shelley's book, including a Frankenstein family history and a story within a story in which Victor tells his tale to North Pole explorer Captain Walton (Aidan Quinn) after the creature is tracked to the Arctic, only to reduce the tale to a slick Reader's Digest condensation.
Branagh hurls characters at us. Victor's childhood in late-18th-century Geneva is idyllic until his mother (Cherie Lunghi) dies giving birth to his brother, William, leaving her doctor husband (Ian Holm) bereft. Victor goes off to study in Germany, vowing undying passion for his adopted sister, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), while the housekeeper's daughter, Justine (Trevyn McDowell), pouts in unrequited lust. Victor becomes pals with student Henry Clerval (Tom Hulce) and obsessed with Professor Waldman (John Cleese in a soggy, solemn cameo), an experimenter in abomination – bringing the dead to life.
Branagh directs the actors to deliver this shitload of exposition in the following irritating manner: talk fast, mug outrageously (I swear I caught Branagh biting a knuckle to express grief) and swoop through doors, down staircases and around laboratories to give the impression that what you are saying is of breathless importance. It's exhausting.
Branagh strains to give Victor the ardor of a poet such as Shelley's husband. In this movie, the creature and his creator have dicks. But Victor's shirtless prancing in the lab, an excuse to show off Branagh's flowing locks and newly buffed torso, is more Fabio than Frankenstein, and it's deeply silly.
Bonham Carter, in a welcome effort to give a feminist edge to the usual insipid-ingénue take on Elizabeth, lacks the wit to carry it off in the manner of an inspired comic actress such as Branagh's wife, Emma Thompson. Bonham Carter merely sets her jaw and steams ahead like the little engine that could.
The love stuff, as ever, is window dressing for the main attraction: the creature. De Niro, with the help of makeup wiz Daniel Parker, veers away from the 8-foot-tall, block-domed, bolts-in-the-neck monster of Boris Karloff in James Whale's classic 1931 Frankenstein. De Niro's average-size creature is all scar tissue, inside and out. The birth scene plays like a Freudian hellzapoppin. Bursting out of a tub filled with electric eels and amniotic fluid, the burping creature lunges for Victor's throat while the two roll around naked in the primordial ooze. "What have I done?" asks Victor, appalled by the monster's brute force.
It's a wow entrance for the creature, who grabs Victor's coat and runs into the woods to learn about life. Hiding in a pigsty, he spies on a family of farmers. Like Karloff, De Niro uses his expressive eyes to show the creature's longing for a love out of reach. Unlike Whale, Branagh revels in sentiment that forces De Niro into coy, flower-sniffing excess.
Worse, the creature speaks. The language is supposed to come from what the creature hears at the farm. Huh? That doesn't explain the New York accent or flowery locutions such as "I know the ways of man" that do not fall trippingly off De Niro's tongue. Shelley wanted the creature, customarily reduced to grunts on film, to engage his maker in philosophical debate. But what works on the page sounds stilted onscreen, especially tweaked with '90s-style parent-child psychobabble.
To fill the gaps, Branagh pumps up the violence, a method that helped Coppola's substance-starved Dracula gross nearly $100 million. Denied Victor's promise of a man-made bride to love, the creature rips out a woman's heart, rivaling De Niro's cannibalistic Max Cady in Cape Fear. A climactic dance of death sends body parts flying, topping Re-Animator for graphic gore and completely missing the book's black humor and poignancy.
In the end, Shelley and the audience are cheated of a tale truly told. De Niro, on the brink of giving a landmark performance, settles for being a gross special effect. And the promise Branagh once showed as a filmmaker, like the hope of revitalizing Frankenstein, is dead again.