Branagh plays Victor Frankenstein, a gifted young med student haunted by the death in childbirth of his sainted mother. Determined to find a way to overcome mortality, he uses the notebooks of a deranged biology professor (John Cleese, very effective in an uncharacteristically restrained performance) to build his own humanoid from gory bits and pieces. Any movie with the word Frankenstein in the title had better have one hell of a barn-burning laboratory scene, and this one doesn't disappoint: with its swirling steam, sizzling power pylons, clanking chains, whirring gears, and a coffin-shaped metal birth tank stocked with amniotic fluid and electric eels, the place looks like Studio 54 redecorated by Jules Verne. The lab sequences are pure Ken Russell excess: when Frankenstein is in the laboratory, he's so happy that he becomes sexually excited, stripping off his shirt and dry-humping the machinery.
Once the monster comes to life and starts walking around and wondering who he is, where he's going, and why anybody would create a creature so miserable and lonely, the film goes oddly slack. Robert DeNiro is competent as the creature, but his makeup is more haunting than he is, and when he tries to speak, he often sounds disinterested or vaguely miffed. He's like Forrest Gump with stitches and a mean streak. He's interesting, but not awe-inspiring.
The same goes for the movie. Branagh's showoffy direction communicates how excited he is to be telling this story, but he hasn't put much thought into either the script (dull platitudes, fortune-cookie warnings) or the camerawork (so many unmotivated 360-degree pans that the movie starts to feel like a gothic merry-go-round). He's a lazy and blandly arrogant director who seems to think following actors around with a Steadicam is real filmmaking. Except for a few choice images (a heart ripped from a sleeping person's chest, the monster and Victor slip-sliding around on a floor covered with afterbirth) the picture contributes nothing fresh or startling to this oft-told tale.
And as you probably suspected, the title is misleading: this is actually Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein, complete with stagey dialogue, out-of-nowhere plot inventions, and the same brand of we're-having-a-grand-old-time-here-on-the-set overacting that made Branagh's previous two pictures such a chore to sit through. His bag of tricks is woefully limited: when a scene is sad, the music is sad and the actors look mopey, and when it's happy, the music turns perky and the actors laugh and hug and prance around around like teens in a high-school production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Every Branagh movie since the marvelous Henry V, which he both starred in and directed, has felt vaguely disappointing to me--even Dead Again, a delirious piece of cinematic junk food I've probably watched at least nine times. I used to worry that creatively, Branagh was selling himself short--that he was trying to be Brian DePalma or Lawrence Kasdan when he had the talent and vision to be another Orson Welles. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein confirms that he's a limited filmmaker, and that the wit and intelligence of Henry V was probably a fluke. Critics called it accessible Shakespeare, but when you recall how he lavished closeups on himself and backed his big speeches with syrupy symphonic music, the emphasis was on "accessible." Branagh isn't an artist; he's an entertainer who occasionally wears the robes of art.
But in this movie, even the most entertaining scenes feel strangely forced and phony, as if the filmmaker thinks you're so thrilled to be in his company that anything he does will earn your admiration. It's a cocky film that has nothing to be cocky about. What a shame that Kenneth Branagh is too in love with being Kenneth Branagh, grinning suntanned interview subject, to care about artistry anymore. For all its shrill hyperexcitement, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein feels cold and remote. It's a familiar corpse of a story jolted with zillions of watts of filmmaking electricity that rarely springs to life.
Interview with the Vampire. Warner Bros. Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt. Script by Anne Rice, from her novel. Directed by Neil Jordan. Opens November 11.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Columbia. Kenneth Branagh, Robert DeNiro, Helena Bonham Carter. Script by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, from the novel. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Now showing.