With almost fifty films adapted from or inspired by it, it takes a man either brave or foolish to approach one of the most famous texts of both early horror and science fiction, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and attempt to launch it for a new generation, yet that is what screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle) and director Paul McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin, Push) have done with Victor Frankenstein, though their job is perhaps made easier by the fact that despite widespread familiarity with the story few in a modern audience will have actually read a book now approaching its bicentennial.
With an eye firmly on the youth market, not only is the titular doctor with the visionary obsession with resurrection played by Days of Future Past‘s James McAvoy (soon to complete his trilogy of adventures as Professor Charles Xavier in X-Men: Apocalypse) but the normally incidental character of Igor is elevated to principal observer of events and intellectual equal, played by teen favourite Daniel Radcliffe as he continues the path away from Hogwarts which saw him face The Woman in Black and grow some Horns.
Rescued by Frankenstein from the London circus where he was kept as a slave by ringmaster Daniel Mays (Outcasts) and the other performers (including Jupiter Ascending‘s Spencer Wilding as the strongman, later doubling unrecognisably as the “creation”), it wouldn’t do to have the leading man as a hunchback, so Radcliffe is relieved of his deformity almost immediately upon his liberation (though never granted use of a hairbrush) and elevated to a standing in society where his innate skills as a physician are of use to the ambitious experiments of his benefactor.
The style of the opening scenes, the instantaneous evaluation of circumstance and the possible outcomes of each action, are very much lifted from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, the similarity strengthened by the industrial sprawl of the Big Smoke, and though no date is specified it does feel to be set closer to Conan Doyle’s late Victorian period than Shelley’s own Regency era.
The explanation of the galvanisation of the dead flesh is somewhat expanded from Shelley’s demurring to make it sound more sciencey but stands up to no more scrutiny than the original conception, nor is the question ever asked why Doctor Frankenstein’s experiments involve isolated organs or compound organisms rather than an attempt to reanimate a recently deceased but intact single creature.
Victor is an energetic showman who, in Igor’s words, “finds normal people boring,” and it’s true; he needs a kindred intellect, unbound by conventional morals and the stagnation of the received wisdom of his professors and peers.
In Igor he finds this, but conversely he is at immediate odds with the blinkered vision of Inspector Roderick Turpin who suspects that behind Frankenstein’s experiments lies an intent which as offense to God, though it is easy to dislike Turpin for reasons beyond his crusading which interfere with his duty, with the perpetually sneering Andrew Scott giving exactly the same condescending performance as in Spectre.
“Men like you have always stood in the way of progress and have inevitably been left behind in its wake,” Frankenstein chastises the Inspector, though becoming increasingly over the top as it approaches the climax on the battlements of a Scottish castle where health and safety officers would have be apoplectic at the violations of proper procedure it is unclear whether the film could actually be considered progress, but at least it is entertaining.
As ever, McAvoy is effortlessly superb while Radcliffe continues to fly the flag of adequate, never convincing as a brutalised child of the streets, though in his defence he has the harder part not only in playing second fiddle to Victor but with his whole character an incongruity seemingly for no reason other than to liven the first act of the film (how did he obtain books to learn medical skills, indeed, how did he learn to read at all?), though he is still better than Jessica Brown Findlay as love interest Lorelei, painfully underwritten and wet.
Conversely, in his single scene Charles Dance (recently seen in the deplorable Dracula Unbound, the first bungled step in reviving the “Universal Monsters” franchise) is dependably dour and commanding as Victor’s disapproving father, but it is disappointing that The First Men in the Moon‘s Mark Gatiss has only a single line; given his well-known love for the period, presumably he was sufficiently satisfied to be allowed to play around on the magnificent sets?
Admirably, on the whole the effects are practically achieved for the majority of the film, lending it a realism which grounds the fantastical nature of the subject and sets it apart from, for example, the abject nonsense of Stephen Sommers’ unspeakably wretched Van Helsing which the marketing campaign for Victor Frankenstein inexplicably appeared to emulate, though in fact the two bear no more than the most superficial resemblance and this, despite its flaws, is in every way the superior film.
Treading its own path of somewhat preposterous grotesque gothic Victoriana, Victor Frankenstein could not by any stretch of the imagination be considered faithful to Shelley’s iconic novel but nor does it have any intention of being; when the work has been interpreted so often beforehand – most notably in recent years in Danny Boyle’s superlative stage production for the National Theatre – which at least sidesteps the first and most obvious question of “why bother?” by actually trying to do something new rather than trying to stitch the same pieces together into another version of the old.