At what point does the Man of Science end and the Man of God begin? While the ideas of science and religion are far from mutually exclusive (no, that doesn’t mean Scientology), in many cases you’ll find that those who seek to push the boundaries of knowledge of human possibility are less inclined towards the idea of a deity. Yet in their works, they’ll actively seek to wield the powers of Gods themselves, to understand the Universe, to keep people from dying.... to create life itself. It might have been just such an idea that inspired Mary Shelley to write her 1818 story of Frankenstein (in the preceding years she travelled Europe researching the experiments of alchemists and the occult); the classic story of science transitioning into madness with horrible consequences. Like any long beloved tale, it’s had no shortage of adaptations. This latest version from director Paul McGuigan (Push, Sherlock) tells the story from Igor’s perspective. Does it bring new life? Or is it more meat on a slab? Well it comes out kicking and screaming but like all lives, seems to wither towards the end.
In Victorian London, a ridiculed circus hunchback with a passion for biology, Igor (Daniel Radcliffe – Harry Potter, What If) sees his life change after encountering a medical student by the name of Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy – X-Men series, Filth). From there, Igor helps Victor in his work with the aim of creating life itself before Victor’s madness takes things to dangerous levels.
“You probably know this story” narrates Radcliffe, which is true of parts. Almost everyone will know the iconic basics of the monster creation (Lightning, “it’s alive” blah blah blah) but there was much more to Shelley’s original story as Kenneth Branagh explored well in his 1994 film. This version finds similar fortune in taking more time to examine the mind of its titular character, and though not as chronologically spanning as its source material, it is instead fantastically vibrant, energetic and overall youthful. We’re pledged Victor at medical school age (early to mid '20's), and like any ambitious student, we feel his burning desire to prove himself, which will not be contained by laws of man or nature, both which gets represented well in the devout Scotland Yard detective Turpin (Andrew Scott – Sherlock, Spectre). It’s this passionate mix of brilliance, madness, and eccentricity that makes so much of the first two-thirds utterly engrossing as McAvoy utterly spellbinding. The sections of the pair working away frequently turns into quite the romp that you can’t help get swept up into. The ideals of morality are delivered well through Igor’s eyes. While he’s conscious that Victor is pushing his work too far, he too gets seduced by the wonder of the artificial creation. There’s also a great comparison to Igor’s circus origins of cruelty and slavery to his time with Victor. This works particularly as it’s partly true with Victor, who's not only rescuing him but cures his hunchback, and even christens the nameless man Igor and instilling a natural sense of loyalty.
The final act of 1.21 gigawatts based monster creation is where the film falls down. Unlike the previous two thirds, it just doesn’t add anything new to the story, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before to any higher standard (there are moments in which it could be mistaken for Van Helsing). The monster’s reveal is mundane and just begging for an “It’s.... John Cena!” video, not helped a certain degree of physical resemblance. Yet most of all, it’s the need for an action-based climax. We don’t want to see Victor and Igor having to fight their creation. These are men of their minds. We want to see them tortured and anguished by what they’ve done, not leaping into the air like they’re Brad Pitt in Troy. It has the nagging feeling of studio intervention desiring a more physical and visual climax in the fear that an emotional and psychological ending would disappoint, which is a shame. Elsewhere, Freddie Fox’s (The Riot Club, Pride) scheming and bankrolling Finnegan feels very underdeveloped, and at times even needless. He’s little more of a plot device to explain how Victor afforded the final act set piece.
There is no doubt that its two leading men are cranking those turbines until their arms break. McAvoy’s performance is utterly stunning. He brings noticeable hints of his Charles Xavier to convey the intellect but smothered in a level of spitting raving lunacy that we’ve never seen from him before. Radcliffe is perfectly cast to be the nice guy (you can believe him as a hero quicker than saying “Expelliarmus!”) around such a bigger personality and really becomes the heart of the film. The king of the supports, despite getting mere minutes, is Charles Dance (Game of Thrones, Dracula Untold) as Victor’s disapproving father; he’s basically Tywin without the breastplate. Adam Scott is magnetic on screen in the first half as the smart and clinical detective following the case but far less convincing when he becomes unravelled. Jessica Brown Findlay (Downtown Abbey) fairs well as Igor’s love interest despite getting minimal story to work with.
For vast sections, Victor Frankenstein is a gripping and thrilling take on a gothic horror masterpiece that’s brought to life with steam punk and the snappy dialogue of Max Landis (Chronicle, American Ultra). In many ways, it’s a shame that the final act sees it run out of juice because otherwise it would have been the modern reinvention of the story (maybe even capable of erasing I, Frankenstein from our memories). Instead, we get an enjoyable film that electrifyingly comes to life only to die before it’s time.