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Frankenstein chills with visual style, good acting

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Directed by Kenneth Branagh.

Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont.

Starring Robert DeNiro, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hulce, Helena Bonham Carter, Aidan Quinn, Ian Holm, and John Cleese.

Loews Cheri.

By Carrie Perlman

In 1816 Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley spent their summer in Geneva as the neighbors of Lord Byron. It was upon a suggestion from Lord Byron that each of them write a monster story that Mary Shelley was inspired to create the horrific character of Doctor Victor Frankenstein.

Kenneth Branagh has remained fairly close to the original story in the newest film version of this tale of science-gone-bad. Branagh has created a film which is visually chilling, but not as psychologically chilling as it should have been. With an opening scene set in the far northern reaches of the Arctic Circle, and the Swiss Alps used as a backdrop for many other scenes, the cinematography is fantastic. The barely visible glaciers of the Arctic and the raw wintertime of the Alps send shivers down the spine. And the rest of the movie is hardly less excessive than the scenery. The acting is melodramatic and when a character dies everyone must be drenched in gory pools of blood.

While training to become a doctor, Frankenstein (Branagh) is obsessed by the possibilities of immortality due to the death of his mother during his childhood. Continuing the work of the eccentric Doctor Waldman (John Cleese), Frankenstein gathers his "raw materials" from the city morgue, stitches them together, and zaps the finished body with electricity until his creature comes to life. Branagh is convincing in the role of this lunatic who later lives to regret and to pay for what he has created.

Robert DeNiro is unrecognizable as the nameless creature, whose character has a lot of depth for a monster. The creature feels betrayed by Frankenstein, who brought him to life and then abandoned him. He is reasonable in his plea for a companion, but when Frankenstein refuses him his choice, he is willing to take his revenge. Frankenstein has succeeded beyond his desires in the creation of a rational, emotional, and vengeful being.

Helena Bonham Carter, as Frankenstein's adopted sister Elizabeth, and Tom Hulce, as Henry, play the characters who keep Frankenstein in touch with reality. Hulce is enjoyable as Frankenstein's bumbling buddy from medical school. Carter, whose character is Frankenstein's love interest, is fine at the start but by the end becomes the weak link in the chain, making what is intended to be a climactic and dramatic scene rather silly.

In all, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein deviates from the traditional Hollywood film versions of the story with a striking visual style and powerful lead performances, but is weakened by an eagerness to revel in melodrama and Victorian-era excess. The film is certainly not Branagh's best work, but the monster story remains a good one.