Review: Victor Frankenstein

VFPoster Approaching a literary classic for a movie conversion is always a tricky endeavor. You have not only a widely popular work from which to extract a differing medium, but a series of other attempted adaptations, usually ranging from the fantastically magnificent to the dreadfully awful. With such a broad stroke, these works of fiction have usually already impacted the viewer, the filmmakers have a whole host of emotions and experiences they must contend with, asserting their interpretation as the most enjoyable/faithful/relevant, etcetera. Frankenstein has never fared well in this arena, but the film Victor Frankenstein directed by Paul McGuigan falls particularly flat with an interesting and promising first two acts that are completely demolished by a catastrophe of a third act that offers no real resolution or even emotion.

To start with what the movie did right: my goodness, this film is gorgeous. The cinematography isn’t what lends this beauty, but rather, the level of care taken by the set design and prop crew really shines through. From the first circus scene amazing costumes cloud the screen, while shortly after leaving this setting we are treated to a powerful landscape of Victorian London. All of this establishes a visual tone that is stunningly whimsical. The only negative is that the fanciful nature of the design is part of what confuses the tonality of the movie. Set pieces are bright, vibrant, peculiar; however, the plot ranges more towards something darker, more mysterious.

Another positive, or really more of a valiant attempt, should be recognized in the obvious work the actors put into these roles. Daniel Radcliffe really does the best with what he is given here, playing this modified version of Igor as a relatable hero. His character is given the only real development throughout the film, and he does not disappoint. Unfortunately, his history as Harry Potter peaks it’s ugly, seemingly insurmountable head out a few times during the movie. The near-mystical journey of his character (as he ascends from abused and underappreciated child to a hero-savant of his chosen skill) is all too familiar. While Radcliffe has done a fantastic job of avoiding roles like this since the last Harry Potter, it is a shame his biggest release to date since then is a movie that hearkens back to that role.

And James McAvoy, bless his heart, he really tries throughout the entire movie. As in, he puts everything he has got into playing the Victor Frankenstein that was put before him, that much is clear. The problem comes in the fact that the character is written so flatly, without any dynamic to him, that McAvoy becomes a caricature. The brooding nature of the character punctuated by bouts of controlled chaos and restrained insanity has a promising outlook, but quickly devolves into near comical spittle-filled rants. His motivation are so blasé that the “big twist” that inspires them is ultimately boring and pointless. Again, McAvoy’s effort is undeniable and commendable, unfortunately the character and script he was given to work with were so atrocious that it gave him only one note to play with the character. But damn, did he ever play that note.

And that brings us to by far the most disappointing, awful characterization to come from this movie: Jessica Brown Findlay’s portrayal of Igor’s obsession, the high-flying trapeze artist Lorelei. This character is a feminist’s nightmare and a moviegoer’s bore. From the very first scene she is purely a victim of the male gaze, a level of romanticism seemingly unobtainable to the male hero, but nothing more than a goal or a prize. She is one of the characters first introduced, and through effective costuming is even made to stand out, clearly this character is supposed to be of some importance. Despite this, she has little impact in the movie beyond that of a stereotype. She becomes romantically involved with Igor, provides him with assistance and advice, and does nothing else of consequence in the entire film. She is a base prize, a walking promise of beauty and sex for the hero, with no decision-making of her own. She is there as a prize for the hero, advises him on the morals of the situation, and assists him in the final act. To put it bluntly: she is there to fuck, and subsequently help, our forlorn hero. Nothing more. It is an absolutely disgusting way to portray your main female character in a film based off of one of the first novels written by a woman in the modern era.

Finally, let me warn you reader, light spoilers may follow, as I must tackle what is by far the most egregious of abuses committed by this film: the stunningly awful third act. Despite the inconsistencies listed above, the first two acts seemed to have promise at least, I was willing to forgive if the movie could give me something in the end that was different than all of the Frankenstein fiction I had seen or read before. If not that, it at least promised to be an entertaining conclusion to a visually striking film. Neither turned out to be true, as the whole act became a rushed, terribly written, melodramatically overwrought piece of utter film garbage. This has the unfortunate effect of leaving the first two acts with all the mixed tonality of David Cronenberg directing an episode of Spongebob Squarepants.

Even before the third act began, while watching the film I sensed that I was nowhere near it. About two-thirds of the way into the film, I did not even feel like we were half way, I started expecting the movie to go over two hours. Surprisingly, a long runtime may have been much preferable, as once the third act begins, it speeds through so many conclusions and revelations that none have impact. The big reveal of Victor Frankenstein’s motivations falls completely flat. And the monster, oh lord, the monster. If you are going to limit the appearance by Frankenstein’s monster to the last fifteen, if that, minutes of the movie, you better have one of two things: an airtight plot chockful of meaningful character development or a climax that includes not only an action-packed interaction with the monster, but one that is also deeply meaningful.

Neither of these were anywhere close to being accomplished. What we got was the resurrection of a blandly designed CGI monster that walked around killing every accessory character for ten minutes before, in a huff, Victor Frankenstein decided that this was not the type of life he was trying to create. Literally, it is minutes from the realization of his life’s work to him ultimately condemning it. A terribly choreographed battle follows that is something like if Tim Burton met Michael Bay and they decided to do a Frankenstein movie while simultaneously appealing to each other’s basest film output. This anticlimactic slop is itself refuted mere minutes after the monster is killed, when the movie suggests its own sequel during the epilogue. This annihilates the notion that Victor Frankenstein actually learned anything, leaving the viewer wondering if they experienced anything worthwhile themselves.

Ultimately, this movie had promise, it seemed to want to take the Frankenstein story into new realms of body horror and fantasy, however, what we end up with is a character development piece that has none. Any meaningful interactions seemed to have been replaced with slow motion knife throwing scenes and cheap parlor tricks with magnesium and playing cards. The whole thing reeks of a big budget studio recut, and all the hard work that the set designers, prop masters, and actors lovingly put into this movie was destroyed by a hackneyed script and an unskilled editing room. It really is a shame, Frankenstein is a story that has yet to have been really done justice, but this movie doesn’t even aspire to the lowly heights of Robert DeNiro’s portrayal in 1994, but something more akin to the recent Aaron Eckhart disaster. They had several opportunities to get enough right to make a good movie (more character development, narrowing the tone, extending the third act, on and on) but ultimately, we are given another forgettable foray into the Frankenstein mythos.

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