Kenneth Branagh’s operatic take on Mary Shelley’s Gothic tale comes to 4K.
Arrow Heads — UK-based Arrow Films has quickly become one of the most exciting and dependable names in home video curation and distribution, creating gorgeous Blu-ray releases with high quality artwork and packaging, and bursting with supplemental content, often of their own creation. From cult and genre fare to artful cinema, this column is devoted to their weird and wonderful output.
Kenneth Branagh leads an all-star cast including Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hulce, Ian Holm, John Cleese, and Aidan Quinn in his definitive cinematic version of Mary Shelley’s classic tale of gothic terror.
As one of of the most well known and influential horror stories of all time, it’s unsurprising that there have been numerous adaptations of Frankenstein on the big screen. A Gothic tale blending together love, death, and tragedy, it feels aptly suited to Kenneth Branagh, whose theatrical nature was channeled into bringing the story to life back in 1994. The film opens on an Arctic expedition that stumbles across a man, one Victor Frankenstein (Brannagh), who tells his story, a tragedy whereby he twisted the laws of nature to satisfy his owns wants and desire to stave off death. After losing his mother as a child and fearing the loss of Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), his beloved step-sister and later fiancée, Victor embarks on a career in medicine. Looking to push the boundaries of science, he learns of new techniques and begins experimenting with dead tissue in the hope of reviving it. He succeeds, raising a creature who becomes a confused outcast, then eventually a tortured soul who seeks out his creator to share the pain and loneliness he feels by destroying all Victor holds dear.
So far so familiar: a man playing God and reckoning with the fallout of his creation. We see Victor’s journey from precocious youth, to driven student, to man pushing the frontiers of science and morality. With Branagh at the helm, the film is a suitably theatrical adaptation of an enduring tale, one that weaves together Gothic horror, period romance, and overwrought melodrama, all hammered home by a dramatic orchestral score from Patrick Doyle. In one respect, Frankenstein is a fable about a father abandoning his son. More deeply, though, Branagh draws parallels between these two doomed figures and Frankenstein’s own yearning for love and life, which his creature soon adopts. Both find their actions fueled by fear and the responses of the world around them. This version of the creature of more aware than previous depictions (as in the novel), making him a better foil to Victor and to humanity in general. Still, his twisted visage invokes base reactions from all those he encounters.
However Branagh’s performance, along with his ensemble, tilts more towards the stage than the screen. It feels indulgent, overwrought, and at times rather superficial. His Victor is pegged by separation issues and a director’s need to take center stage. De Niro chews up the dialogue, but adds a depth and despair to the creature’s plight. Branagh also saw fit to add a smattering of effective British talent in the supporting roles, from Ian Holm to Tom Hulce, and Richard Briers, and even John Cleese.
The film does have some ponderous beginnings, with a rather twee introduction to proceedings coupled with a slathering of melodrama, largely swirling around Bonham Carter’s Elizabeth. While visually handsome, the scale and spectacle don’t quite gel, and the tale feels milked for length and theatricality. From the birthing sequence and, more notably in the final act, the film is infused with a crackling energy. Blood and lightning, corsets and steampunk, an overall frenzied and even camp vibe takes hold. But the film takes a gnarly tilt into horror and tragedy as the fate of this man and his creation finally collide. A manic energy makes the film all the more memorable, despite its weaker first half.
The aesthetic of the film ranges from Gothically sumptuous, to mired in muck peasantry, to the steampunk-tinged interior of Victor’s lab. All showcase an intricate and handsome production which is well represented on this new 4K UHD presentation. Blacks are deep, details impress, and the film has a robust color palette. The grain is a little on the heavy side, and some of the more well-lit sequences do look a little soft at times, but these seem to be from the source stock rather than a reflection of any overprocessing.
As you expect from Arrow, the package is stuffed with extra features, but sadly, there are no new contributions from Brannagh or De Niro. What is new feels a little beholden to praising the film. Considering its mixed critical and public reception, a retrospective look would have been appreciated.
- Audio Commentary with film historians Michael Brooke and Johnny Mains: An interesting and well-researched dive into the history of the story, including numerous aspects of the tale that arose from adaptations rather than the original work. They also cover a lot of the modern aspects added to the narrative, as well as the production itself.
- Mary Shelley and the Creation of a Monster: Gothic specialists David Pirie, Jonathan Rigby, and Stephen Volk spend 30 minutes covering the origins of the story and how it has changed throughout its numerous adaptations.
- Dissecting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The trio above do some direct comparisons between the original text and Branagh’s version.
- Stitching Frankenstein: An interview with costume designer James Acheson.
- Making It All Up: An interview with makeup artist Daniel Parker.
- “We’ll Go No More a Roving”: Interview with music composer Patrick Doyle.
- Frankenstein (HD, 13 min): The original 1910 silent short film produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company and directed by J. Searle Dawley. The first screen adaptation received a 2K restoration by the Library of Congress and was presented in 1080p HD. A great addition to the release.
- Still Gallery and Trailers
- Liner booklet featuring two new essays on the film by Jon Towlson and Amy C. Chambers: Nice pieces that add some historical context to the writing and themes of the original novel, with further notes on the film’s new 4K restoration.
The Bottom Line
Branagh’s take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein feels very theatrical, even operatic in its themes, visuals, and melodramatic elements. While indulgent and overwrought in places, the back half of the film, with its descent into horror and tragedy, still packs a real punch. Despite a lack of new contributions from Branagh on this release, the 4K transfer and extra features are as solid as you’d expect from the fine folk at Arrow.