Victor Frankenstein first introduces Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) as an abused circus clown with an interest in and a talent for human anatomy. The titular character (James McAvoy) meets him at the circus and decides to help free him from his captivity. Frankenstein heals Igor of his afflictions and recruits him into his quest to conquer death itself, to use electricity to create life out of nothing. Igor is more than happy to lend his skills to the scientist, until he discovers the true, dangerous nature of Frankenstein's experiments.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is an enduring work thanks mostly to its themes. It is the grand, cautionary tale of a man who must pay a price for exceeding the bounds of nature. The movie tries to turn it into some big adventure, which isn't really a natural fit for the property. Try as it might, the film cannot wring conventional excitement from the elements of this story. The blockbuster conceit ends up being more of a hindrance than anything else, the movie struggling to fit these pieces of narrative into a palatable mainstream form.
Telling the story from the perspective of Igor doesn’t do it any favors. Igor, even when put into the center of the story, is still an ancillary character at best. He’s there to support Victor, and his narrative arc mainly involves him trying to figure out what it is that makes the mad scientist tick. And this leads directly to the biggest blunder of the film: focusing on the sentimental motivation of the titular character, treating those revelations as defining moments. This is presumably a consequence of the impulse to “humanize” the character, to make him “relatable” and thus worthy of redemption. This mainly results in a clichéd backstory that doesn’t really benefit the character.
What the film doesn’t seem to understand is that Victor Frankenstein is already the most human of characters. There are few things more human than the yearning to conquer death, to use all means to transcend the limits of human existence. In explaining Frankenstein, the movie actually makes the character less compelling. And in concentrating on his backstory, we don’t get to the really interesting parts of the story. Frankenstein doesn’t get to really wrangle with the horror of what he’s created. They are made to deal with the monster, but it doesn’t really seem like that big of a deal. There is no moral dilemma, no complication. It’s just a monster that they need to fight.
The production is certainly lavish enough. The production design is impressive, if not entirely distinctive. The filmmaking is a little sloppy, particularly in the action sequences. The initial burst of action is a mess of angles that makes things less clear than they really ought to be. Acting is fine. James McAvoy certainly relishes the madness of his character. There isn’t much to Daniel Radcliffe’s Igor, but it’s serviceable. The standout is Andrew Scott’s Inspector Turpin, who represents a moral grounding that stands in contrast to Frankenstein’s pursuit of science. Jessica Brown Findlay is in this movie as well, playing a requisite love interest that might as well have been written out of the story.
Victor Frankenstein tries so hard to shape this story into something that might resemble a fun blockbuster, but it just doesn’t work. It ends up structuring the film such that we don’t even see the monster until the climax of the film. And this is a problem. This makes the film an exercise in patience, in waiting for the thing that we all actually want to see. The film doesn’t give much reason to care about Igor, and its embellishments on the Frankenstein backstory are stupid. And so, it just becomes a lot of muck of wade through to get to the good stuff. And when we get there, it isn’t even that good.
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