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Victor Frankenstein - Review * 20 April 2016

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You know this story. This is the story of a genius; a brilliant scientist, elbow deep in experiments and body parts. He has neither the patience nor inclination towards social niceties and manners, yet he is capable of displaying charm and charisma when the situation calls for it, while being unconsciously rude and excessively blunt when it does not. All that matters to him is the work, seeing women as nothing but an unwanted distraction, just as he finds ordinary people, well, ordinary. His one and only friend is an acting physician who he has cured of a false disability; a man that has the thankless task of attempting to act as his moral compass throughout their endeavours and who is ultimately living a new life away from his once lonely existence that he could never have possibly imagined before their meeting. Yes, you know this story; it is the story of Victor Frankenstein. Who else did you think we were talking about?


Now, let's get the elephant in the room out of the way first and foremost; 'Victor Frankenstein' was not received well by critics upon its cinematic release last year. Having been moved forward in time from an unspecified date in 18th century Geneva to Victorian London, film journalists supposed it was a way to cash in on the appeal of Guy Ritchie's 'Sherlock Holmes' franchise by reinventing another British classic with a Steampunk makeover. Empire magazine described it as,"engineered to appeal to BBC Sherlock fans" and to a certain degree they were right, because it appealed greatly to us and now we're going to tell you why we think you'll like it too.

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Mary Shelley's Frankenstein shares a great deal with Sherlock Holmes in general, and never so much so than in recent years with both Sherlock Holmes actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller (CBS's Elementary) sharing the role of both Victor Frankenstein and his creature in the National Theatre production staged in 2011. This, in fact, came decades after a previous Holmes on the BBC, Peter Cushing, played both the great detective and the mad scientist in Hammer Horror's adaptations of both Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein and with such similarities in their characters it's not hard to see why. Both men are visionary scientists who find emotional relationships with others difficult to form or maintain, but where Holmes is merely satisfied to solve crimes and bring those responsible to justice, Frankenstein intends to go one step further and see that a murdered man can stand in court to face his murderer. It is no coincidence, therefore, that what makes this version of Frankenstein stand out from previous adaptations is that it is told from Igor's perspective, much like the adventures of Sherlock Holmes are told through Watson's.

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As many reviewers have correctly stated, Igor was never in Shelley's original novel and started out in life as Dwight Frye's hunchbacked lab assistant Fritz in the 1931 film 'Frankenstein'. While the sequels 'Son of Frankenstein' (1939) and 'The Ghost of Frankenstein' (1942) featured a blacksmith with a broken neck and twisted back named Ygor, it was not until Universal's 'House of Frankenstein' (1944) that the legacy of a mad scientist and hunchback assistant (coincidentally named Daniel) was assured in the public's imagination, and being both share a travelling circus in their plots they may well have been a source of inspiration for 'Victor Frankenstein' screenwriter Max Landis (writer of 'Chronicle,' 'American Ultra' and whose next adaptation will be for a new BBC America series featuring the holistic detective, Dirk Gently) Igor, as seen here, however, is as an equal partner rather than just a crippled servant. He is the heart to Frankenstein's brain; the doctor to his scientist; the conscience to his ego, and this is a potent mix that should be familiar to any Sherlock fan reading this.


The film's plot behaves very much like an origin story, introducing us to each major player, while reimagining their character back stories and setting the course for a sequence of events that eventually builds towards Frankenstein creating his monster at the climax of the film. Despite Landis' magpie approach of plucking ideas from Shelley's original novel and the many Frankenstein pastiches that have gone before in order to suture them together to create something new, it is the electric energy between Victor and Igor that is the beating heart of the narrative. In fact, the onscreen chemistry between James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe combined with an outrageous dose of homoerotic tension and not so subtle sexual innuendo is heavily utilised and is not only the driving force of the film, but makes for the most memorable scenes as well. On numerous occasions the film knowingly pushes the boundaries of what constitutes as bromance so far, it would appear that in being so self aware the sole purpose of Igor's romantic interest Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay of Downton Abbey fame), the former circus trapeze artist turned high-society 'beard' (Oh, the irony!), is to clarify they are in fact 'not gay' as her character and subsequent subplot are both irrelevant and unnecessary.


Another character that is perhaps superfluous is that of Freddy Fox's Finnegan, Frankenstein's imperious fellow medical student, who has the family wealth and influence to further his work and serves as one of the film's two antagonists. Interestingly, it is debatably who in this story is the good old-fashioned villain as the ethics behind Frankenstein's work are questionable at best, but in terms of an arch-nemesis the role is fulfilled by Andrew Scott as Scotland Yard's finest, Inspector Turpin (interestingly sharing the same surname as the Judge in Christopher Bond's 1973 play, 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street'). Here Shelley's original thematic undertones are used to great effect by pitching a God fearing man against a man who wants to play God. Both are motivated by loss and death, but where Turpin carries with him the cross of his late wife and thus a symbol of an infinite spiritual life, Frankenstein carries his late elder brother's pocket watch (Henry Frankenstein in this case and not Harry Watson for those familiar with Holmes' pocket watch deduction in 'The Sign of Four') and a scientific reminder that mortal life is finite.


The cameo appearances of Louise Brealey and Mark Gatiss make for unexpected treats for those not aware of the link between 'Victor Frankenstein' and 'Sherlock', and Charles Dance and Alistair Petrie (Major Sholto in 'The Sign of Three'), although only occupying a single scene each are welcome additions to an already talented ensemble cast. As to be expected, director Paul McGuigan delivers a visual feast for our eyes, making the most of the decedent costumes and richly detailed set design. More Sherlock contributors fill major production roles - the visual flash comes courtesy of cinematographer Fabian Wagner, while editing was partially handled by the much missed Charlie Phillips. The delicate balance between practical animatronic effects by Millennium FX (Doctor Who) and the work of British VFX house MPC is also expertly handled, with the latter creating a believable but stylised Victorian London backdrop that doesn't look like it has been drowned in steampunk design. But the real visual wow factor comes from anatomical sketches and medical notes superimposed onto the bodies of humans and animals alike to demonstrate the inner workings of Frankenstein's mind (much like the floating text in 'Sherlock'), which is beginning to look very much like Paul McGuigan's signature screen motif.


The final scene suggests the intention of a sequel that unfortunately seems unlikely now, but that doesn't detract from the enjoyment of this film as a standalone piece. The very fact that at its close there are echoes of a certain poignant and very famous correspondence in 'The Final Problem' suggests that even if you never get to see it, you know this story; you know what will happen next.

Buy Victor Frankenstein on Region 2 DVD

Buy Victor Frankenstein on Region B Blu Ray


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