Visually impressive Dracula lacks coherent plotBram Stoker's Dracula
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Screenplay by James V. Hart.
Starring Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder,
Anthony Hopkins, and Keanu Reeves.
By Chris Roberge
The biggest shock in Bram Stoker's Dracula isn't a clever plot twist or a jarringly horrific scene, it's that director Francis Ford Coppola has crafted such an unusual and unconventional film.
manages to be engrossing even as it frustrates with a lack of coherence and sense.
begins with a prologue describing the exploits of Prince Vlad The Impaler, a 15th-century Romanian king whom Stoker based his lead character upon. Vlad/Dracula (Gary Oldman) leaves his wife, Elisabeta (Winona Ryder), to fight in the name of the Christian church against Turkish infidels invading Europe. On a darkened battlefield under a crimson sky, a silhouetted Dracula is seen piercing the bodies of his foes with a spear before swinging their bodies wildly in the air in a wonderfully realized scene. Angered by the success of the warrior, the Turks shoot into his castle an arrow bearing a note falsely proclaiming the king's death. Elisabeta reads the letter, is overtaken with grief, and throws herself out the window to the moat far below. When Dracula returns home to discover that his wife is dead and, according to the clergy, denied divine salvation because of her suicidal sin, he swears that he will live an eternal life of vengeance on the God and society who have betrayed his loyalty.
Centuries later, the ambitious young Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is sent to the Transylvanian castle of Count Dracula by his London-based company. After arriving at the home of Dracula, now a weak and decaying man with two large mounds of white hair growing above his fleshy face, Harker begins to realize that Dracula is not a typical client. Soon, the old man catches sight of a photograph of Harker's fiance, Mina Murray (Ryder). Believing Mina to be a reincarnation of his Elisabeta, Dracula traps Harkin in his castle and begins to plan a journey to London to reclaim his long-lost love.
The plot of Bram Stoker's Dracula is clearly of minor importance, however, to the makers of this film. The true emphasis lies on the unending onslaught of imaginative and over-the-top visuals that are truly unlike anything seen in any other recent movie. In making Dracula, Coppola made a decision to rely on naive and primitive effects in an attempt to create a mythical and magical tone. Forced perspective miniatures, double exposures, mirrors, and low-quality filmare used to produce results that seem "new" to an audience that has grown accustomed to the more realistic effects of computer generated work seen in films such as Terminator 2. Some of these stylish shots, particularly those that pile layers of images upon one another in rapid succession, have a magnificent effect. Others, such as those of Dracula and Mina dancing among a myriad of candles, seem recycled out of old music videos.
Amazingly, Coppola has said that he intended the look of his movie to be small and unobtrusive compared to the attention commanded by his cast. It may be a fortunate thing that he never followed through on this desire, because the acting in this picture deserves very little attention of its own. Oldman and Ryder give the only two truly good performances in the film -- the scenes in which only they appear come closest to being more serious than silly. Anthony Hopkins, as the metaphysical doctor Abraham Van Helsing, provides an amiable and ridiculous character who is intended for comic relief more than anything else. And Keanu Reeves, who apparently as an actor can not advance beyond Bill and Ted, remains so wooden throughout the entire picture that his total lack of skill manages to provide a few laughs as well.
Along with the performances, the general structure and narrative pull of the film are also quite unremarkable. After a genuinely compelling first third, the film begins to drag a bit, and the logic of the story becomes somewhat cloudy. I realize that we are supposed to see Dracula both as a cruel and vicious killer and as a thwarted romantic, but despite the sizable talents of Oldman, the character usually appears as either one or the other, and rarely as a complex combination of the conflicting two.
Despite all of these flaws, it can not be denied that Bram Stoker's Dracula is an amazing film to look at. It may not be a very good movie, but it certainly is a very interesting one.