Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Paul McGuigan
Stars: Andrew Scott, Daniel Radcliffe, Freddie Fox, James McAvoy, Jessica Brown Findlay
Released: December 3rd, 2015
The first thing that took me by surprise concerning Victor Frankenstein was it’s soundtrack. Of course, it could have been any number of things-the artificial environments of the early 1800’s or the horribly arrogant narration dialogue Daniel Radcliffe was given that makes his Igor more irritating than endearing. But of course, as opposed to those last two things the soundtrack made me optimistic we might actually be in for something of a treat here. Chris Morgan’s score, while traditionally orchestral, has a distinctive flavor to it at least in the early scenes. There is something almost wholly fantastical to it that suggests it may bring the darkness of this story a new layer of marvel and fun that has always been interpreted more along the lines of dark and grimly serious. Even the arrival of James McAvoy’s titular character elicits something of a magical moment and whether or not this is due purely to the recognition factor or not, Morgan’s score elevates this instant to something that instinctively elicits actual excitement. These optimistic thoughts could only prevail for so long though as Victor Frankenstein quickly devolves into a by the numbers retelling of the Frankenstein story that we’ve seen numerous times before. There are hints here and there of the script wanting to pull out more caveats of our core characters origin stories as it does in the beginning, but given we all know how things end up it seems screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle, American Ultra) felt he had nowhere else to go and thus ultimately delivers exactly what we expect rather than subverting those expectations and giving us something new to chew on and ponder. We’ve heard it all before and despite a hugely credible cast as well as Landis spearheading the project there ultimately seems no need for it. With each incarnation of this story the question will always be what new or original aspect can be brought to the table and if there is nothing new to bring then why tell it again at all?
Told from the perspective of Radcliffe’s Igor we initially meet the hunchback as he performs at a circus on the outskirts of 18th century London. Largely known only as a freak with no actual name to be referred to the hunchback takes a beating from the clowns every night for a laugh while studying the human anatomy in his spare time. It is a hobby he takes up for no other reason than he needs something to take his mind off his miserable life. He becomes quite familiar with the inner-workings of the body and the medicine used to treat ailments and broken bones which comes in handy one night when trapeze artist, Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay), falls during her performance. The freak immediately rushes in and resets Lorelei’s collar bone allowing her to breathe again essentially saving her life. Impressed by his skill and quick evaluation of the situation Frankenstein, who was attending the circus to see about deceased animal parts for his experiments, tells the freak he is wasting his life at the circus and offers to help him escape. Naturally, the circus owners don’t like the sounds of this and even punish the freak by burning all of his medical books leading to a balls-out action sequence where Victor Frankenstein more or less becomes something of an action hero-battling a plethora of circus freaks with his cane and cool karate skills. Again, this hints at the somewhat fantastical alternate universe in which Landis was attempting to take this origin story, but not until the inevitable climax where Frankenstein faces off against the monster of his own creation do we see these skills become relevant again. While Frankenstein reinvents the stock character by giving the freak the name of Igor and draining the fluid from the abscess that has been mistaken for a hunchback all of his eighteen years while also strapping him into a back brace so that he may stand up straight the rest of the film plays as the two nobly going where no man has gone before with their research into immortality and ultimately paying for the consequences of their meddling.
What might be most disappointing about Victor Frankenstein is that Landis simplifies much of the original text to make the dynamics of the characters less complicated and the story more streamlined which, of course, makes all of this much less interesting. The idea of telling the story from Igor’s perspective (who’s not even a character in the original) does nothing for the story as a whole other than give us another outside looking in narrative on the struggles of Victor Frankenstein as the book did with it’s frame story technique. If Landis were to have taken the meat of the novel where Frankenstein himself recounts his story we might have had something more enthralling to latch onto. Something that might have taken us inside the mind of this crazed scientist who is at first intrigued by the thought of creating life from the dead due to the death of his mother, but here we have only a surrogate for ourselves in Igor who has the same internal conflicts about Frankenstein’s experiments as we do. There is a throwaway line about the origin of Frankenstein’s obsession being credited to the death of his brother late in the film (which also happens in the book, but plays a far more crucial role in the progression of the story), but little more. The main issue with the film being that given the way the story is presented we never come to know who the titular character is outside of McAvoy’s enthusiastic performance that, while entertaining in spots, doesn’t gives us enough reason to care as to why this man is so driven to bring things back from the dead. It’s a fascinating idea, sure, it always has been. Given the cultural differences between when Shelley originally wrote the book and now though there has to be something more to the story, something as radical as Frankenstein himself if it’s going to stand out and unfortunately Victor Frankenstein only shows glimpses of what it could have been were the “artists” behind it truly committed to bringing something as world-altering to life as their main character.
Those are harsh words, admittedly, but the slightly arrogant tone in which Landis prances out these well-worn ideas make them ripe for such criticism. It is only the disposition of his character and the tone conveyed in Radcliffe’s rather becoming performance that doesn’t immediately radiate the egocentric vibe given off by the writing. Attempting to state the obvious with flowery language simply doesn’t work and in this case we can see right through the many thesaurus checks and catch that Landis was more or less scraping the bottom of the barrel when it came time to deliver the final two acts to 20th Century Fox. The overall goal seems to have been to give origins to some of the stories most famous aspects. Given that Igor was never a part of the original text, but is more a staple of the myth born from the 1931 film where the character was named Fritz, Landis could have essentially come up with anything around Igor and his origin stories that would allow the now stock character to feel fresh. Maybe this is why the early scenes in which Radcliffe is dressed as a hunchback clown with dreary face paint and a secret obsession with anatomy are the most interesting. Maybe this is also why the fact Igor finds something of a love interest in Findlay’s Lorelei is striking, but this is also why the single scene in which Charles Dance appears as Frankenstein’s father feels shoehorned in. It’s as if they were attempting to set up a connection between the universe of this and last year’s equally abysmalDracula Untold (remember Dance as the Master Vampire?) as if this were a part of Universal’s planned Monster Universe. Rather than taking the original story and giving it a unique perspective though, this film somewhat sidelines the conflicting moralities over Frankenstein’s experiments in favor of Andrew Scott’s police inspector pursuing the duo. This attempt at creating an antagonist to up the urgency of the pacing fails though, as large portions of the film are outright boring and we all know Frankenstein’s greatest enemy was always himself. I haven’t even mentioned director Paul McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin), but that’s mostly because this feels like a director for hire gig where the look of the film is as dingy as the sets they seemed to borrow from whatever was laying around on the back lot. In fact, I’m sure McGuigan would like to forget he made this as quickly as I’d like to forget I saw it.