When it comes to adaptations of classic monsters Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is only surpassed by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and that is mainly because most films portray the monster as a mindless brute, which is not the way he was depicted in the original novel. As the title of this film denotes this is more about the man behind the monster than of the monster itself…who is once again a mindless brute. *sigh* But is this movie really about Victor Frankenstein?
What sets this movie apart from many of the Frankenstein adaptations is that it is told mostly through the eyes Victor’s lab assistant Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), while Victor (James McAvoy) is your typical card carrying mad scientist that we’ve seen a hundred times before. This “fresh perspective” is certainly an interesting choice when adapting Mary Shelley’s book for the character of Igor does not exist in the books but was a creation of Universal Studios. Now I’m not saying this is an intrinsically bad idea but this version of Igor, created by director Paul McGuigan and writers Max Landis, is about the most ridiculous character I’ve seen in quite some time, and this is from someone who has watched I, Frankenstein.
We first meet Igor (though he has nameless at the time and only gets one later when he moves in with Victor) he is a hunchbacked clown working in a circus. Through his narration we learn that when Igor was not performing as a clown he functioned as the circus’s doctor (as clowns were known to do) and while fulfilling this unique dual career he became fascinated with the science of medicine and human anatomy in particular. But he isn’t shown just being interested in medicine, we see him pouring over medical journals and making detailed anatomical drawings of his own. We clearly see that his fellow performers ridicule and abuse him, so what crazy logic led them to making this “actual clown” the company doctor and outfitting him with what would be at the time rather expensive books? It’s also during this opening that we meet circus aerialist Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay), who Igor is secretly in love with, and it is when she is injured from a fall that we see the sheer breadth of Igor’s skill as a doctor as he comes up with an instant diagnosis of her injury, and with the help of Victor is able to save her life.
Victor tells Igor that he is wasting his skills working as a clown (duh) and helps him escape his cruel circus masters. It’s at this point we realize that Paul McGuigan must have been huge fan of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies as this film is more a rip-off of that series than it is of the Frankenstein mythos. Paul McGuigan and Max Landis have turned Victor Frankenstein into a Victorian action hero. Not only is this action set piece reminiscent of Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law Holmes and Watson team-up but it is quickly followed by the introduction of police inspector Roderick Turpin (Andrew Scott) who uses deductive reasoning to figure out that the circus owner is lying when he claims these two men robbed the circus and murdered a performer. That they cast Andrew Scott, who portrayed Moriarty on the British series Sherlock, makes the comparison even more blatant. But then the script has Turpin jettison all his scientific reasoning to go after Victor and Igor because he believes their experiments are sinful and will incur the wrath of God.
And “not Inspector Lestrade” isn’t even the films only villain, we also have Victor’s father Baron Frankenstein (Charles Dance) who blames Victor for the death of his eldest son, and then we have the other big bad in the form of rich aristocrat Finnegan (Freddie Fox), a fellow classmate of Victor’s who offers to fund the research of “Life over Death” with the clear motive of using this technology to make his family even richer. For those of you that haven’t read Mary Shelley’s novel I’d like to point out that it didn’t have a one clear cut antagonist let alone three. In the book the Monster brings death and destruction upon Victor’s life because his maker spurned him immediately after his birth. There is a lot of blame to go around in the original book, but in this movie the Monster is barely a third act footnote and Victor’s guilt is more about betraying his friendship with Igor than in abandoning his creation. James McAvoy’s performance here is so vastly over-the-top it verges on cartoonish, so we the audience have no real feelings either way about the character, but that’s fine because magic science Igor is the central character here despite what the title implies. We spend an inordinate amount of screen time with Igor’s love affair with Lorelei because a love subplot between Victor Frankenstein’s assistant and a trapeze artist is what audience certainly came here to see.
Daniel Radcliffe gives a subtler performance than what we get from McAvoy, but then again that’s like saying a latrine’s hole is smaller than the Grand Canyon. Another problem with this film is that can’t even keep the character of Igor consistent; first he’s a magically gifted hunchback with insane medical knowledge, but once Victor drains his hump and straightens him with a back brace (Isn’t science wonderful?) he becomes Victor’s assistant, but then when he proves to be even more invaluable than originally believed Victor makes him his partner, yet later we get Igor calling Victor, “Master.” If this movie wanted to do something really interesting they could gone the route of Igor being the brains behind the whole thing and that Victor Frankenstein was just the name and the money behind the experiment.
Instead we are left with a clichéd mad scientist who only realizes too late that the creature he created isn’t true life but just a soulless humonclous. This completely reverses the science versus religion battle that this film seemed to be making over the past 90 minutes. It’s as if Max Landis, at the last second, decided he’d better not anger the religious right and so he had religious zealot Turpin proven to be right all along. To add insult to injury this movie’s final revel of the monster is just plain sad as the creature looks more like somebody the Scooby and the Gang would find themselves up against, and I’d have have forgiven a lot if at the end it revealed that the Monster was actually Mister Barnaby the owner of the Circus.
Boris Karloff brought pain and pathos to his depiction of the Monster while this movie only gives us a seven foot tall growling bore, and also relegated to basically a cameo in this film. With television shows like Penny Dreadful giving us interesting takes on the classic monsters a theatrical released movie has to do better than this
Director Paul McGuigan wastes an excellent cast on Max Landis’s nonsensical drivel resulting in a movie that will just become a minor footnote in the history of Frankenstein and his creation.