Our Far-flung Correspondents: Which Is the Monster? The Creature, or the Creator?
Chicago Sun-Times, 17 February 2011
'Raging Bull', 'Henry V' and 'Heat' are primary examples of films acclaimed on their releases and steadily more since then. But this is far from being the case with 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein': slaughtered by the majority of critics in 1994, when it was released, the movie by British director Kenneth Branagh didn't please the audience either, becoming an embarrassing box office flop in the career of its director, which had so far been in ascension.
Even the surprising casting of Robert De Niro in the role of the "monster" wasn't enough to attract the attention of the audience, which therefore lost the opportunity to witness yet another immensely sensitive performance by the actor - and I use the word "monster" in quotes because DeNiro may have played many in his brilliant career (Louis Cyphre, Al Capone, Max Cady and even Jake La Motta come to mind), but the creature conceived by British writer Mary Shelley certainly isn't one of them. At least, not in Branagh's beautiful version.
Co-written by Steph Lady (her only credit as screenwriter) and Frank Darabont (who would in that same year direct 'The Shawshank's Redemption'), the screenplay of 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein' was baptized as such not just because of Universal's copyright (they wouldn't concede to the use of the title "Frankenstein"), but also for being one of the most faithful and complex adaptations of the original story, respecting its main themes even if it deviates, here and there, from specific points of the plot. This doesn't mean Branagh, responsible for the non-credited final revision of the script, ignores the creature's long trajectory throughout Cinema - and it's easy to detect, in several moments, obvious references to the 1931 masterpiece (like Colin Clive's Doctor Frankenstein, Branagh shouts: "It's alive! It's alive!") or even to the superior 'Bride of Frankenstein', released in 1935 (Helena Bonham Carter's hairdo resembles Elsa Lanchester's and several elements of that story are repeated in this film).
Set in an age when Science, despite its quick evolution, still divided its place with firmly rooted popular beliefs and religion (which is illustrated by the sentence "Knowledge is Power Only through God", seen in the facade of the university attended by the protagonist), the film introduces us to young Medicine student Victor Frankenstein (Branagh), who, determined to find a "cure" to Death, continues the research of polemic professor Waldman (John Cleese), using the corpse of a murderer (De Niro) in his experiments and bringing him back to life. But, shocked by the results, Frankenstein returns to his home city, Geneva, intending to marry his beloved stepsister Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) - not knowing the Creature is determined to find him.
Actor of Shakespearean training and acclaimed for his debut as a filmmaker for adapting the aforementioned 'Henry V', Kenneth Branagh approaches Mary Shelley's book with the same solemnity he devoted to the English bard - and upon announcing the name of his character for the first time, the actor/director pauses heavily to emphasize the weight of the revelation, portraying "Frankenstein" with the same respect he'd play Hamlet or Iago some time later. What's more, the filmmaker uses a theatrical style - actually, almost operatic - in the way he orchestrates the narrative, punctuating several dramatic moments with thunder and lightning and directing his actors to say Shelley's dialogue as though they were singing an aria of Don Giovanni or reciting a monologue from 'Romeo and Juliet'.
But the main aspect of this adaptation, which really puts it above all the others - is in its moral discussion, which can be summarized in a single question: who is, after all, the story's "monster": the nameless creature (it's common, the mistake of referring to it as "Frankenstein") or the man who conceived it? Or even Humanity itself, which is portrayed here as a violent, irrational crowd willing to lynch and expel those it considers strange? To Branagh, there seems to be no doubt: despite initially introducing his character as an individual with unshakeable scientific curiosity, soon we notice Victor Frankenstein's selfish and irresponsible nature - and, for this purpose, even the gigantic ego of his interpreter (which is in full display due to him also being the director) helps composing the character as a narcissistic, arrogant man (observe, for instance, how Branagh, clearly in love with himself, insists in being filmed shirtless and posing handsomely even when this could collide head-on with the scene's logic). And, if there could be any doubt related to the scientist's personality, it's clearly eliminated due to how easily he abandons his creation in a matter of seconds, barely holding back his disgust for what he sees and leaving it hanging humiliatingly in his lab - a lack of concern emphasized by Branagh's frame composition.
A tragic creature since its very birth - uniting the corpse of a murderer with the brain of its victim -, Frankenstein's "monster" already arrives on the world suffering every kind of rejection (including the worst one: his father's) and being cruelly and violently persecuted by Humanity - and it doesn't take long until he appears sharing food with pigs in a deeply touching scene. But not even all the brutality he's submitted to is capable of eliminating the Creature's hope of finding some place where it will be accepted and, therefore, its almost childish nature (after all, it is, in a certain way, a child) leads it to imprudently bet on the null possibility of being "adopted" by the family it meets in the forest. In this regard, it is impossible not to be touched by the "monster's" satisfied smile when it witnesses the happiness of the family it helped survive through a rigorous winter -and it's equally painful to see the sad irony of its first spoken word being "Friend" (which summarizes his huge emotional needs) or its escape from Ingolstadt forcing it to hide among his own "kind" (a pile of corpses).
Therefore, choosing an actor like Robert De Niro to play a character many have mistakenly considered one-dimensional is more than justified: while the creature weeps deeply, exposing all his pain (which Branagh emphasizes by framing it small and vulnerable next to a dry tree), the "monster" is also capable of expressing a colossal resentment which, ultimately, leads it to commit actions that could justify removing the quotes from its denomination. Demonstrating an unsuspected intelligence by displaying a keen awareness of its own ugliness and the consequences of it, the Creature finally allows the sum of all its frustrations and rejections to become a violent resentment against its Creator - and if Frankenstein expresses fear when thinking he "created a monster", then he'd certainly be surprised upon realizing that the creature itself also condemns him for having conceived it as such.
Keeping his camera in constant movement, Branagh invests particularly in travellings that close in quickly toward the characters in especially dramatic moments, as in a zoom-in - something that, in this film, becomes the cinematographic equivalent of bringing an actor to the proscenium, in theater, and bathing him in intense light. Besides, as aforementioned, the director displays no fear in his heavy handling of the mise-en-scène, abruptly changing the lights (something also more common in theater than in movies) and allowing his actors to give themselves to grandiose outbursts, with several "Nooooooooo!"s and convulsive weeping. Meanwhile, Tim Harvey's production design (he often works with Branagh) devotes admirable care to contrasting the Frankenstein mansion's clean opulence with the decadence of a cholera-ridden, miserable Ingolstadt. Similarly, the costumes efficiently reflect the characters' personalities and transformations, from the miserable, lifeless cape the Creature wears, to Frankenstein's elegant clothing (which is eventually replaced by dirty rags as he gets more and more involved in the madness of his experiments) and, of course, to the long red cape Elizabeth wears, which, initially seen in a cheerful moment denoting a bright future, eventually marks, like a blood trail, her tragic destiny.
With the mansion's large, illuminated hall reflecting Victor's vast horizons in his youth, Harvey and his art directors are wise in contrasting it with gradually more claustrophobic environments, full of scientific objects and messy piles of books, which illustrate the protagonist's mental and psychological state of mind. And it's almost funny to realize there isn't any subtlety in the design of the laboratory used to create the "monster", since the immense tube that will free the electric eels (which move like sperm) sticks out of a huge bag, which, therefore, becomes a cloth version of the scrotum - and the symbolism is further emphasized by the "birth" of the Creature, which is dumped from the metallic uterus amidst a gush of amniotic fluid.
Also, equally symbolic is the constant color contrast seen throughout the film, from the initial clear palette that portrays the home of the Frankenstein and which is stained with the blood of the tragedy represented by the matriarch's death, to the scene in which Elizabeth, disappointed with her beloved's obsession, decides to give up the marriage and leaves the mansion - and then we see all her furniture covered in white sheets that contrast heavily with the black robe used to cover her wedding dress, as if mourning it.
Elizabeth and Victor's relationship, by the way, is perfectly illustrated by the beautiful soundtrack of Patrick Doyle, who creates a theme that manages to sound hopeful, melancholic and tragic all at the same time, also stressing the intrusion of the Creature in that romance when it's played by the "monster" with his flute, heard from a distance (this is not the only moment in which the theme is played in a diegetic version; when Victor returns from his febrile delirium, he hears Elizabeth playing the music on a piano - and, in this moment, director of photography Roger Pratt once again changes the lighting by bathing the protagonist in a warm glow which portrays the importance of the girl's presence to the character. And of course, once again, Branagh allows for the theatrical when portraying the reunion of the couple below a beam of light not unlike the ones that illuminate a stage in theater.)
But it must be said the composer also does well with the dissonant, uneasy and grandiose style of the soundtrack in the horror bits - as in the scene in which the "monster" is conceived. And it's brilliant, the way the main couple's theme returns in the morbid scene in which Victor dances with his "rebuilt" bride, when the music plays like a distant echo, allowing us to realize what that represents to the scientist while we also realize that, for obvious reasons, the happiness of the past can never be brought back. By the way, it's also important to emphasize Branagh's intelligence by using repeated circular tracking shots when filming Victor and Elizabeth dancing throughout the film, since the repetition of the movement, in the final act, is what makes the morbid nature of the couple so tragic, since now the protagonist is practically forced to carry his beloved in a bizarre, clumsy dance (besides, the circular tracking is a perfect reference to Vertigo, which also had a man determined to "resuscitate" the woman he loved.)
Doing justice to the rest of the technical crew, editor Andrew Marcus stresses the tragedy represented in this final dance by including, throughout the scene, quick flashbacks that, popping on the screen, establish a touching contrast between the happiness of the young couple and the horrible consequences of Victor's actions throughout the film. Similarly, Marcus and Branagh make a curious choice in the scene in which the Creature awakens, when, through several quick cuts in sequence, they illustrate the pathetic, grotesque nature of the "birth" and the first steps of the "monster". Finally, the director and the editor allow even for a curious stylistic gimmick by conceiving an inspired transition between the scenes during which Victor cuts the rope that ties the murderer to the gallow and the conversation the scientist has with his best friend in a tavern, wherein a beer bottle is used to continue the motion of the corpse falling.
Branagh's aesthetic and narrative care can also be appreciated through the construction of symbolism in many of his frames - and the one that is possibly the most meaningful is that which shows Creator and Creature in the same couch which, due to the camera's tilt, reflects the instability of the nature of that relationship (aside from also being aesthetically elegant to show Victor's head in the same horizontal axis of the "monster's", despite the fact one's laying down and the other's sitting). Similarly meaningful, in this aspect, is the scene in which Elizabeth confronts her beloved for the first time about his projects, begging him to return home: while Helena Bonham Carter has, on the background, a folding screen and a piece of clothing that represent the promise of a cozy place to live, Kenneth Branagh is flanked by the drawings of his dark project - in a visual logic that will establish an echo with another scene, at the end of the second act, when it's Victor's turn to beg Elizabeth not to abandon him, in a complete reversal of roles. This time, however, the actress has, behind her, a door that represents her chance to escape that world of pain and tragedy, while the protagonist has a crucifix behind him, which not only symbolizes that pain but also resembles the frame in which Victor abandoned the Creature right after its birth (notice the symmetry of the frames' composition and you'll see that, with this, Branagh subtly compares the "monster" to a Christ betrayed by Humanity).
But the filmmaker's displays of virtuosity go even further: while there's no way to ignore the portrayal of loneliness represented by the frame that shows the Creature suffering with his father's death amidst an ice desert, on the other hand it's possible many don't realize the director's visual strategy when it comes to the way he portrays Death and the creation of Life: stressing the passing away of professor Waldman, little William (Ryan Smith) and Elizabeth through highly dramatical high-angle takes, Branagh reverts the camera's axis by following, in low angles, the corpses of the Creature and the "Bride" when they're hoisted toward the compartment that will bring them back to life, which is intriguing. Branagh's logic is so accurate it applies even to the death of Victor's mother, which is not seen through high or low angles for a perfect reason: William's birth, which "rebalances" the family.
Graphic to the point of receiving an R rating from MPAA, 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein' doesn't hold back when it comes to illustrating the violence of its story, whether it's on the sequences that show the horrible deaths of Justine (Trevyn McDowell) and Elizabeth, or the scenes that portray the "monster's" creation or even when it comes to the superb makeup that transforms Robert De Niro into the Creature, and which also helps indicating the passage of time as it gradually "heals".
However, the most gratifying aspect of this film is to realize that all of its unquestionable technical quality was invested in a complex, ambitious narrative that understands that the "monster movie" always represents an excellent opportunity to establish an efficient allegory about human nature. Therefore, if Branagh's Victor Frankenstein appears to be a portrayal of instinct and emotion (despite being a scientist, the man constantly wallows in emotional outbursts and impulsive gestures), De Niro's Creature is, unexpectedly, a portrayal of reason and Man's capacity to reflect upon himself. Clearly more intelligent than its Creator - no wonder it can manipulate him so easily -, the "monster" eventually even starts communicating with greater sophistication, expressing a fascinating curiosity about purely metaphysical questions Victor can not answer. Witness, for example, the Creature's questioniong in the wonderful ice cavern scene:
"What of my soul? Do I have one? Or was that a part you left out? Who were these people of which I am comprised? Good people? Bad people? (...) Did you know I knew how to play this (flute)? In which part of me did this knowledge reside? In these hands? In this mind? In this heart? And reading and speaking. Not things learned so much as things... remembered. (...) Did you ever consider the consequences of your actions? (...) Who am I?"And the answer of an exhausted and defeated Victor Frankenstein? "I don't know." - a key moment in the film that leads the "monster", in an irrefutable acknowledgment of his father's flawed personality, to say: "And you think I am evil".
This confrontation alone, which is not physical in any moment, would be enough to call 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein' a masterpiece, but there's more: minutes later, upon bringing Justine's corpse to Victor so he will resuscitate it, the "monster" displays a clear look of satisfaction upon witnessing its "father's" shocked reaction - and while Branagh, a great actor, offers a remarkable performance throughout the film, there's no denying that, in the end, it's thespian Robert De Niro who stands out with way less screen time (and in this scene, the actor, despite being under pounds of makeup, manages to portray a number of feelings through his eyes that denote not only satisfaction, but also anger, resentment and even cruelty when he says to Frankenstein: "Materials, remember? Nothing more. Your words."). Meanwhile, Branagh deserves credit especially due to the way he portrays Victor's mental degradation, as he succumbs to complete insanity after his beloved's death, resulting in the narrative's tragic third act.
And that's when Helena Bonhan Carter, only 28 years old then, steals the scene from her two colleagues by displaying all of Elizabeth's pain in the moment she realizes what Victor has done: without a single word, the actress portrays the character's deep disappointment, along with her anger and the way she stares at him with recrimination, as though she's saying a painful "How could you?" - and her following action, shocking and unexpected, results in the only moment in which Victor and the Creature appear truly united and on the same side (unfortunately, due to a tragedy). As for the rest of the cast, John Cleese, with dental prosthesis, a wig, a hoarse voice and an unshaved face, turns out to be an inspired casting choice by Branagh, giving professor Waldman intelligence and sensitivity in a rare dramatic role in his brilliant career, while Aidan Quinn, displaying an appearance appropriately similar to Branagh (both characters share their obsession for success at someone else's expense), is efficient as a tool to tie the narrative - even if this causes a luddite, anti-Science message which I, particularly, disapprove of.
Anyway, more important than the narrative's technophobia is its humanist message - and, once again, it's admirable that it's represented by one of Cinema's most famous "monsters". And if the Creature was seen before, in other adaptations, as a relatively irrational and almost always stupid being, in this film it's moving to see it display a touching attitude of Faith in Humanity when it says: "With the sympathy of one living being I would make peace with all" - which, in contrast, turns out to stress the resentment within its last line in the film: "I am done with Man."
Fiction or not, it's not hard to accept that, in its infinite capacity to provoke pain and sadness, Humanity proved capable of driving away even the one who, theoretically, should be the real aberration.
Pablo Villaça lives, writes, blogs and teaches in Belo Horizonte, Brazil's third largest city. He blogs (in Portuguese) at Diário de Bordo, and tweets at @pablovillaca.