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Victor Frankenstein
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by Jay Seaver

"Some good ideas sewn to some rancid tissue."
3 stars

My expectations weren't high for "Victor Frankenstein"; the preview made it look like the very worst example of Hollywood trying to make evening younger, sexier, and more action-packed imaginable, and I had something more extensive to that effect outlined in my head even before sitting down. Those problems are there in the actual film, to a frustrating extent, but it is at least ambitious enough to be interesting, which is a rather pleasant surprise.

The screenplay by Max Landis draws far more directly from the classic Universal film than the novel by Mary Wollstencraft Shelley, and is told from the perspective of "Igor" (Daniel Radcliffe), who starts out as a nameless, bent-over, and abused circus clown before medical student Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) sees him think quickly to treat a critically injured trapeze artist (Jessica Brown Findlay). Victor spirits him away to his apartments, where he quickly straightens out the misdiagnosed "hunchback" and tells him to use the name of Victor's absent flatmate should anyone ask. Igor process an excellent partner as Victor attempts to reanimate dead tissue, although he has some qualms - and disapproving Scotland Yard Inspector Roderick Turpin (Andrew Scott) is following their trail of mayhem.

As someone who loves Frankenstein the novel and tends to judge adaptations on how closely they stick to that, a lot of the choices made to reconfigure the story seem misguided at first, with the massive reduction of the Monster's role basically ripping or the heart of the story and its themes of how a creator (or parent) is responsible both for his creation and to it. With that the case, the lack of a fiancée and a different relationship with his family might as well come next, as he doesn't need to retreat to their normality. In some ways, that makes recasting Frankenstein as a Victorian Brit and giving the look of things a push in the direction of steampunk merely cosmetic, although the almost casual way Igor is quickly remade as a good-looking partner verges on bad parody, despite the character originating in the films. The addition of an untrustworthy benefactor is boring a later cliché onto a classic story that wasn't missing it.

What Landis and director Paul McGuigan are doing becomes clear as the film goes on, though - by reducing that material, they're able to put a much sharper focus on Victor's drive for discovery without much care for applications or ethics, and there's some intriguing nuance to how it's contrasted. Igor, here, may not be as gifted as Victor, but he's got a powerful curiosity of his own, mostly directed toward helping people in a practical sense. There's a yin-and-yang quality to them, though - Igor can get sucked into Victor's manic quests, just as Victor is not wantonly cruel and, perhaps, a bit more altruistic than he gives himself credit for. Turpin, meanwhile, serves as an intriguing mirror of Victor - he is just as relentless and amoral as his quarry - he quickly figures out that Igor is not guilty of the crimes that the circus accuses him of committing, but pursues them as a way to get Victor - but is motivated by a religious fervor. "There are some things man was not meant to know" had always been one of the messages of this story, but when Turpin articulates this, it's a cowardly support for the status quo where the likes of Igor and Lorelei are dead or deformed because what Victor discovers about life and death may challenge his beliefs about being reunited with his late wife. It's a fairly thoughtful take on the material, making up for quite a bit of what was lost in translation.

Despite being second-billed, the film rests on James McAvoy as Victor, and he's perhaps a better fit for the role than many might expect. Though often cast as the likable everyman meant to be the audience's point-of-view character, he actually excels at arrogance, and Victor gives him a chance to dive into that whole-heartedly, with Victor working the best whenever he's being a bit of a bastard rather than just manic, or when he's being controlled of his obsessions rather than vice versa. There's something sneakily appealing in there, though - his difficulty with public speaking seems to fit the character more than one might expect, and the way his relationship with Igor (his "first creation") seems to snap into place in the final scenes wouldn't work nearly so well if he hadn't been seeding it all before.

Radcliffe gets more screen time and acquits himself well enough, especially in the beginning when his movements still mark him as a man used to being bent over. He's got appealing chemistry with both McAvoy and Findlay, who is either unused or superfluous as (former) trapeze artist Lorelei. It falls off fairly sharply thereafter - Andrew Scott is effective as Turpin (between this, Sherlock, and Spectre, he really seems to be filling a niche) but not really compelling, while Freddie Fox just seems too contained for what is positioned as an important role.

For something that looks like it should be fast-paced and exciting, there's actually not that much action, which in some ways is for the best - McGuigan seems to be a big fan of tossing the camera around and cutting fairly randomly durinig an action scene or otherwise cheating to find ways to imply excitement rather than actually create it, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness (Victor and Igor make one escape from Turpin by going down a trap door in front of an audience of hundreds, but that seems to be the end of it). The frustrating thing is that the raw materials are at times fantastic - Victor's first monster is genuinely horrific and realized with an impressive mix of animatronics and digital work, and the final monster may only be used briefly and take quite direct inspiration from the classic Karloff model, but it's a great update, muscular and steampunk-ish without going overboard and losing what made that design a classic; it's a shame it only appears late and never gets to be a character. The film has a couple of other impressive bits, too.

The tragic flaw of "Victor Frankenstein" the film, rather than the character, is that it is never good all at once: Great design work will be hampered by choppy action or some good acting won't be able to quite connect the story's threads. It at least mmoves in the right direction, better at the end than the beginning, but one moment when everything came together in the middle of disaster might be an improvement one a movie where there's almost always something interesting going on but also something holding it back.

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originally posted: 11/26/15 16:17:35
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  25-Nov-2015 (PG-13)
  DVD: 08-Mar-2016


  DVD: 23-Feb-2016

Directed by
  Paul McGuigan

Written by
  Max Landis

  Daniel Radcliffe
  James McAvoy
  Jessica Brown Findlay

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