That was bloody good! I don't think we're likely to see a more faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley's original novel in our lifetimes. It makes lots of little changes (and one big one) but I thought they all made sense and enhanced the story. Anyone who only knows Frankenstein from his cinematic incarnations might have come away disappointed, but I'm impressed that someone had the guts to do a proper warts-and-all Frankenstein the way Shelley wrote him.
You see, Mary Shelley's novel is a downer. It's cerebral, doom-laden and depressing. It's a scientific tragedy, not a juicy slab of melodrama like Dracula or Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. Stoker's original plot and set pieces tend to survive intact in Dracula movies, practically beat by beat. The novel works. But the reason no one ever did a faithful Frankenstein adaptation until now is that Shelley's plot is a cobbled-together contrivance of coincidence, happenstance, idiot plotting, passive characters and ferociously intellectual debates. Until now adapters had always kept Shelley's ideas but built a new story around them; something less harrowing and more thrilling.
A faithful Frankenstein adaptation was never going to storm the box offices. Branagh and co. must have known that, but they went ahead and made it anyway. Personally I value this far above the thing that calls itself Bram Stoker's Dracula, which mutilates the spirit of Stoker's novel and is far from the most faithful Dracula adaptation out there. On the other hand we'll probably never see another Frankenstein like this. It's classy, honest and often damn impressive. (It's also infinitely better cast.)
I'll start with the bits I didn't like. The direction seemed a little off in the early scenes, and I wasn't wild about the ending. It contains nothing that the Creature doesn't promise to do at the end of Shelley's novel, but actually seeing it happen degraded a bleak and haunting coda into something more reminiscent of an action movie. Most importantly, the death of Justine felt downplayed. Compressed in time and stripped of its legality, it becomes merely nasty instead of one of the strongest gut-punches in the original's considerable repertoire.
However for everything I wasn't sure about, there was plenty more that I admired. John Cleese (giving his best dramatic performance ever) plays a brand-new character who builds up what's coming and makes the incredible credible. This script bends over backwards to convince you that Frankenstein really can resurrect the dead... and you buy it! The fantasy is made palatable by a thick layer of historical and medical authenticity. The twist with Victor's journal is a huge improvement on the original's accidents of literature. (Volney's Ruins of Empires, indeed!) The big twist also makes sense to me, giving us an effective extra slant on how Frankenstein's dreams would turn to ashes. It's thematically relevant, too.
You see, there's a definite theme of family. Almost every modification subtly (or not so subtly) emphasises this. In the original, Victor's mother merely dies of scarlet fever and the Frankenstein family's ties are less strongly delineated. Note also that Mary Shelley kills off Clerval but doesn't murder Victor's father. We've seen Frankenstein movies that concentrate on the monster (Universal) or the Baron himself (Hammer) but here we have a film about their relationships. The Creature's first word is "friend", but he follows it up smartly with "family" and "father". For my money, the best scene in the film comes between Branagh and de Niro in which Frankenstein is reunited with his monstrous son. They merely talk... but it means so much. Now I come to think of it, it's the most important scene in the book, too.
Incidentally, this familial theme has a semi-incestuous subcurrent. Victor and Elizabeth think of themselves as brother and sister, no matter that they're not related by blood, and one could take a similar view of a scene later in the film.
Branagh plays an interesting Frankenstein. The only character of comparable status in popular fiction is Dracula, but his portrayals tend to run along predictable lines. He's a monster. However Frankenstein can be painted as evil, amoral, stupid, demented, driven, insane, weak, blinded by ambition or almost anything else you care to name. He's a complex character, as is demonstrated by the huge variation in cinematic Frankensteins over the years. This one is intellectually ferocious (incisive and lightning-quick) but perhaps a tad gauche emotionally. He's capable of manic, almost frenzied energy. He means well, but he can scare the living daylights out of you. With Robert de Niro underplaying the Creature (though I quite liked the final effect), it's Branagh's show.
Oh, and while we're on the subject of de Niro and his method acting... apparently he researched stroke victims for portraying his struggles to discover speech.
Visually, this is a film of open spaces. There are mountains, arctic wastelands and bleak frozen farmlands. Even the Frankensteins' family home has a staircase that the Nazis might have built for Triumph of the Will. It's also solidly rooted in the 1790s, creating an eighteenth-century world that's grittily convincing while never descending into quaint BBC historical drama. Basically it all looks great - especially Frankenstein's mad lab equipment. You can't go wrong with mad lab equipment!
Also the acting is splendid. Hey, it's got Ian Holm!
In a way, even this film's flaws are appropriate. Branagh's touch slips a little with action scenes, but so does Mary Shelley's! His spinning camerawork might make you seasick, but you'll never lose sight of the themes and the ideas. It's a bit of a slog and not much fun, but in a good way. Mary would have been proud.