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Film Review: Victor Frankenstein

Victor Frankenstein (2015; Directed by Paul McGuigan)

Transposing elements of Mary Shelley’s galvanizing 1818 gothic novel to a decadent steampunk-inflected Victorian London, Victor Frankenstein presents as an unfortunately limited series of considerable missed opportunities. The core questions about science infringing upon the territory of life and death previously ceded entirely to God might have been interestingly amplified in the context of a spreading British Empire beset by unprecedented technological wonders and luxury comforts. Those themes are present and demonstratively thrust forward, but bizarrely lack resonance. The film also fritters away one-and-a-half flamboyantly scenery-chewing central performances and straightjackets another key cast member capable of producing such moments.

Victor Frankenstein‘s mistakes and confusions begin with its title, thrusting the mad scientist figure who makes it his megalomaniacal mission to bring dead flesh to life through the harnessing of electric power (played by a majestically impish James McAvoy) to the fore when it’s his oft-maligned assistant Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) who is the focus of the film’s perspective and its moral conscience. Igor is introduced as a nameless, dirty-visaged, hunchbacked clown enslaved by a travelling circus and summarily mistreated by his masters. He has dreams and ambitions, however, studying all he can about human anatomy and medical science, acting as the circus’ unofficial doctor, and pining after comely high-wire acrobat Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay).

Catching the eye of the privileged but eccentric medical student Frankenstein when he cleverly resets a bone to save Lorelei’s life after a fall under the big top, the man who would be Igor is sprung from his chattel status by the putative doctor. They escape his carnie captors in a frantic, reasonably entertaining chase sequence that comes to involve nearly the entire performing and backstage cohort of the circus; so much for “The Show Must Go On”. Frankenstein appreciates the hunchback’s skilled hands and autodidactic medical knowledge, and so he (rather forcibly) drains the malignant cyst on his back, performs a radical chiropractic adjustment, and gives him the name and wardrobe of the his mysteriously absent flatmate, Igor Straussmann. He also recruits him as his right-hand man in his initially ill-defined experiments in reanimating flesh.

Initially grateful to Frankenstein for uplifting him and energized by their scientific collaboration and friendship, Igor begins to nurse moral and personal doubts about the man and his obsessive project. There are dark clues about the fate of the original Straussmann as well as Victor’s brother, his imperious father (Charles Dance, obviously) deeply disapproves of his activities, and he is doggedly pursued by Scotland Yard police inspector Roderick Turpin (Andrew Scott), a religious zealot who suspects him not only of murder, grave-robbing, and public mischief but much more sinister and sinful crimes against creation and God’s laws as well. Lorelei, likewise conveniently lifted from the circus to become the consort of a closeted homosexual lord, begins a romantic attachment with Igor and echoes him in his uncertainty about Frankenstein’s motives and actions.

Given the pervasive cultural knowledge of at least the broad strokes of the Frankenstein narrative, it shouldn’t be hard to guess where Victor’s mad quest is headed. Not only the execution but the conception of this particular arc are badly miscalcuted at many points, particularly the thematically deflating ending, and it’s hard not to glance at screenwriter Max Landis (who also wrote another more major flop last year, American Ultra) as the prime culprit. Victor Frankenstein follows the au courant Hollywood genre property fashion of self-aware referentiality and mash-up-style recombination of familiar elements from previous franchise installments and original source material. Landis deploys such flourishes, sometimes cleverly (there’s a funny tossed-off joke gesturing to Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein which I didn’t expect to get) but often less so. Furthermore, giving Victor a personal emotional impetus for his galvanic project diminishes the grand themes about rational man challenging the dominion of Heaven even while McAvoy and Scott have overt arguments about that precise conflict. Thematically, metaphorically, and often on the more basic level of character and motivation and empathetic direction, this is a movie that can’t get out of its own way, and that’s mainly on Landis and the writing.

Victor Frankenstein is directed by Paul McGuigan, who has tread the boards as a decent feature director before but is probably best-known for directing two episodes of Sherlock‘s phenomenal first two seasons on the BBC. From this career touchstone, he borrows not only cast members (watch for cameos from Sherlock supporting players in addition to Scott’s stifled antagonist turn) but also much of its enervated style and visual techniques, most noticeably the superimposition of text onscreen (here, it’s more frequently anatomical drawings overlayed on living bodies, a canny expression of Victor and Igor’s book-to-life knowledge base).

But neither McGuigan nor his able and likable leads can overcome Victor Frankenstein‘s handicaps of construction. Radcliffe demonstrates his facility with physical observation in the opening stages while a hunchback (his West End stage performance as Cripple Billy in Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan comes to mind as a useful skill-development project in this vein) but then settles unproductively into a conflicted but good-hearted romantic lead role of dull conventionality opposite Findlay, who is given little to do but look pretty (in a genre moviemaking landscape that includes female leads in Star Wars, Mad Max and Ghostbusters, plugging in this kind of stock girlfriend role is no longer an acceptable choice).

McAvoy is much more game for the kind of depraved, visceral horror madness that Landis (paying homage to the genre classics of that sort made by his father John) and McGuigan are furtively aiming for. With Radcliffe playing the straight man, McAvoy summons a wild glint in his eye and lets rip with most of the film’s best moments. He purportedly conceived of the movie’s most loopily disgusting moment (Victor siphoning the fluid out of Igor’s back cyst with his mouth) and delivers its best joke with hilarious relish: after Victor patronizingly implores the social neophyte Igor not to do anything to embarrass him at a gentleman’s club, a nicely-timed ironic smash-cut shows him insistently declaiming to other guests about the merits of “Babies grown in vats!” McAvoy’s tense debate with Scott over rationality versus faith might be rote, but it still crackles with the sheer ability of the actors performing it. While Scott’s buttoned-up primness serves the character as written, one wishes that the crazy-eyed abandon of his iconic performance as Moriarty in Sherlock could have been tapped into alongside McAvoy’s similar embrace of excess.

Alas, as is the case with many of this project’s tantalizing possibilities, such delights are not to be. The delights here are fleeting, as on almost all occasions either the constraints of creative imagination or budget shackle the prospects of inspired entertainment of thematic thrust. Despite the intermittent CG-assisted wide shot of a circus tent or bustling urban London or a stormy Scottish coastal castle, Victor Frankenstein feels like a small movie without the intimacy, a sadly closed loop that cannot either summon or achieve a necessary sense of ambition. If it’s not nearly as terrible as its deflating box-office take and critical dismantling might suggests, Victor Frankenstein is nonetheless flawed, strained, and ultimately inconsequential.

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