There is no disputing the name Frankenstein is synonymous with horror. Its very utterance instantly recalls ideas of humanity's obsessive and terrifying craving for discovering the unknown and its desire to claim dominion of what is naturally ungovernable. There is also the immediate image of Victor Frankenstein's creation, a monstrous physical representation of humanity's uglier side, the resulting offspring of Man's Godlike arrogance but lack of responsibility. While Mary Shelley's novel has left a significant impact on modern civilization, influencing everything from literature, art, theater and pop culture, the monster has grown to become one of the most easily recognizable horror icons in entertainment history.
Often seen as a forewarning of soulless technological advances, the real focal point of the novel is ultimately the creature. Seen as a rejected and forsaken son, not only by his father but also by society at large, Shelly's monster is a tragic hero an extreme, unnamed outcast who never asked to be given life. The conversation between Victor and the monster is a pivotal moment in the story. And although Kenneth Branagh altered the original discussion for the screen, he maintains much of its significance and purpose. The novel is a masterpiece of literature and genre fiction which had never been faithfully adapted to film. With 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,' Branagh attempts to do just that, and it's an admirable endeavor to say the least.
Despite some major adjustments and modifications to the story, Branagh's version is surrounded with impressive scenery, great production value which brings Shelley's classic tale to life. Many of the ideas expressed in the book are retained without being an overt or overbearing theme. What I enjoy best is Robert De Niro's performance as the monster, furnishing the character with the humanity that had for so long been denied him. De Niro's portrayal of a wretched, hated individual struggling with his loneliness is sincere and upsetting, showing viewers the soul he so eagerly asks of his father. While Branagh does hint at the early science fiction elements of the original novel, he places a good deal of attention on a monster conflicted with his own existence, and the film is all the better for it.
Unfortunately, Mr. Branagh, who also stars as Victor Frankenstein, seems to have gone a bit overboard with his staging, adding an exuberance and excess of spectacle which doesn't quite work for a big-screen adaptation. Shelley's narrative is, of course, already filled with the Gothic fantasy and the melodrama of British Romanticism. But as a film, such histrionics come off as rather mawkish and artificial, not quite the stuff contemporary audiences want to see from one of the most influential stories of the modern era. The filmmakers altered a good chunk of the novel, so then why sensationalize the story further? Why add scenes and conversations that only push the drama into emotional hysterics and false pathos?
I actually don't mind seeing Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) show up in Ingolstadt and help Victor recover from his exhaustion. But their tug-of-war relationship starts to become somewhat of a downer after a few squabbles. As a film, the Robert Walton scenes feel rather redundant and not as effective as they are in the book. And while we're at it, the night the monster is born looks cool and all, but it is so needlessly extravagant and theatrical that it almost borders on the comical. Added to that, it's not really necessary to see a shirtless, studly Victor swing chains around and later wrestle with the naked creature for about a minute. In the end, the film simply feels crude and ungainly for a Kenneth Branagh production – more like a cartoonish spectacle with loftier aspirations.
Admittedly, I still enjoy watching 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein' – more for its attempt to adapt a literary masterpiece than for the end product. It's nice to finally see Shelley's book as it was written, but I can't help feeling that the film's producers went a bit overboard. While I can respect the filmmakers' efforts, I feel that the script would have benefited from a few more revisions and some slightly toned down melodrama.
Sony brings 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein' to Blu-ray with an average, somewhat dissatisfying 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1).
The picture often alternates between decently detailed and attractive to completely ugly and hardly the level we've come to expect from the format. The transfer does have its moments, mostly at the Frankenstein manor where characters are surrounded by plenty of bright green foliage. But even in these instances, the quality is nothing greatly impressive for a catalog title. This becomes more apparent while in Ingolstadt, the image is generally flat and soft with colors fluctuating between bold and faded.
Overall, contrast is drab, dreary and miserable, with whites showing a bit of chroma noise around the edges. Interiors, especially in the lab, are the weakest, with dull, washed out shadows that take away from background info. Close-ups are the strongest, revealing fine textural details in clothing and the faces of actors. Flesh tones, on the other hand, appear sickly flushed and unhealthy through most of the presentation. Black levels are respectable and stable, but they still lack energy. Taken as a whole, the improvements are minor, suggesting Kenneth Branagh's film is in need of a serious remaster.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack offers a slightly better impression, despite being generally located in the front speakers.
Dialogue reproduction is precise and well-prioritized throughout. Patrick Doyle's score makes the best use of the high-rez codec, enhancing the soundfield beyond the center channel with subtle, pleasant bleeds in the background. It spreads evenly across the speakers, creating a welcoming, cinematic-style soundstage with a wide and cleanly sharp mid-range. Rear speakers are rarely employed, except for the music, and low-frequency bass is fairly mild and listless. Only moments of envelopment during the search for little William when there's a sudden storm and the sound of thunder fills the room. But beyond that, 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein' is pretty unmemorable on Blu-ray.
Despite finally seeing a Frankenstein feature that's as faithful to the novel as possible, 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein' just doesn't work all that well as a film. With Kenneth Branagh behind the camera, as well as in front of it, the adaptation comes off as an excessive melodrama lacking the same impact as the novel. The picture quality of the Blu-ray is an unfortunate mess, while the audio presentation does a bit better with its source. Although this barebones release is ultimately for the fans, others will be safe with a simple rental.