A review of the Kenneth Branagh's film "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" begs comparisons between it and two other films. The first of these is Francis Ford Coppola's lavish "Bram Stoker's Dracula" from the 1992 holiday season. Both films are big-budget, high-quality adaptations of gothic horror stories, but the similarities stop there. Where Coppola made "Dracula" an example of film as art, Branagh made "Frankenstein" an example of film as character study. Although each succeeds to a lesser extent in the other's strong suit, the feeling that "Dracula" is purely fantasy while "Frankenstein" is an expansion of human achievement gives each a distinct temperament.
The other film to which "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" must be compared is the classic "Frankenstein" from 1931 starring Boris Karloff. Most striking is the difference in tone between the films. The black-and-white Universal film was concocted to scare and shock audiences. The Branagh film, on the other hand, is more tragedy than horror. It's characters are multi-faceted instead of relentlessly single-minded. The Creatures in each film are also wildly divergent. Karloff played a grunting zombie who possessed a flat head, metals bolts extruding from the neck and only a minimal intelligence. De Niro's creature is intelligent to the point of being able to speak and read, is saddened by the reactions of those around him, and looks like a man hastily assembled from parts of other men.
As the name of the film implies, "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" goes back to the author's source material (published when she was but 20 years old). It starts out in 1794 with the rescue of a half-crazed Victor Frankenstein (Branagh) by a ship's captain (Aidan Quinn) bent on reaching the North Pole. Victor unravels the story of what has brought him to the icy domain of the Arctic as the ship's crew prepares to ward off a dangerous phantom.
The story then jumps briefly to Victor as a young boy who has just made the acquaintance of an orphaned girl who will be joining his family. Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) is her name and she and Victor become fast friends. Later, as the two reach adulthood, we see that their friendship has blossomed into a full-blown, albeit chaste, romance. They plan to marry just as soon as Victor completes his studies as a doctor.
While at medical school, Victor makes the acquaintance of a Professor Waldman (John Cleese), who is experimenting with concepts on the fringe of medical science. Sparked by this fresh perspective and the vow he made to his mother after she died giving birth to his younger brother, Victor decides to embark on studies which, if successful, will cheat death by creating life. This he does in private, neglecting his friends and family for what he feels is a higher cause.
When his experiment in creating human life succeeds, Victor's feelings of triumph turn to dismay as he watches the pitiful Creature (Robert De Niro) flounder about, unable to control its body. When, the next morning, the Creature has fled, Victor decides to put this entire episode of his life behind him. Believing the Creature to be a likely victim of the cholera epidemic that has wrought havoc on the town, Victor heads back to his home with the intentions of marrying his beloved Elizabeth.
Unbeknownst to him, the creature is alive and well. It has taken up refuge in the barn adjoining a small house, and from there is privy to school lessons being taught by mother to children. When the family leaves the house, never to return, the Creature decides it is time to pay a visit on his creator. Revenge is what it wants, but it will settle for the creation of a female like unto itself. Explaining this to Victor upon finding him, the Creature warns "Deny me my wedding night and I'll be there for yours". A promise that it keeps.
The fine cast, which also includes Tom Hulce and Ian Holm, does a remarkable job bringing the venerable tale to life. De Niro is nothing short of phenomenal in his role as the Creature. Attention has been paid to even the smallest details of the production. Those looking for a good fright will be disappointed by the scarcity of chills in "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein". Others will find the psychological aspects of the story most appealing.