It is the beginning of the nineteenth century, and an Arctic explorer named Robert Walton (Aidan Quinn) is captaining a ship through the ice in the hope that he will reach the North Pole and make history. However, the going is so rough that the crew are close to mutiny in spite of, or because of, Walton driving them on, until they are distracted by an eerie howl from the icy landscape. Then a figure emerges from the fog, half-frozen and hunched but still alive: he announces himself as one Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh), and he has quite a story to tell about whatever is out there...
After Francis Ford Coppola adapted Bram Stoker's Dracula for the big screen, it was natural that a remake of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein would be next on the agenda, though Coppola was not the man who ended up directing it. No, that responsibility fell upon Shakespearean actor Branagh's shoulders, and by all accounts he took Steph Lady and Frank Darabont's script and shook it up to make it a rollercoaster ride through the classic tale, in some ways more faithful to the original text than many of the other versions had been.
This did not stop it being a bit of an underachiever at the box office, mainly because of a major flaw that many spotted early on: in Branagh's forceful style, he had rendered the old tale absolutely ridiculous. Maybe if it had been intentionally daft then he might have got away with it, but with his unnecessarily swooping and winding camerawork and way over the top setpieces, this Frankenstein was far too wild-eyed for its own good, never mind the audience's. Actually, it wasn't only the setpieces which were way over the top, as the whole enterprise seemed to have been fuelled by one lightning bolt too many.
But what of our Monster? Surely he was a saving grace? Not really, as putting stitches and putty over the face of Robert De Niro (for it was he) did not make him appear any the less the avenging New York mobster somehow transplanted to the Europe of the eighteen-hundreds. It was indicative of Branagh's chance-taking that this was a bold move, casting a method actor amongst these British luvvies to contrast their approaches and make the cultural differences between Monster and creator as obvious as possible. But it was also plain that this idea simply didn't succeed, like too many of the film's supposed innovations to the tale.
Therefore you get John Cleese cast as the mentor to Victor, nice idea but why give him a pair of huge false teeth to mumble through? Were they trying to disguise him so people would come out of the cinema saying to each other, "Did you know who that was?" More likely they came out asking, "Why didn't Frankenstein simply perform a heart transplant?" In its breathless way, this Frankenstein was like the worst kind of trendy teacher telling his pupils that honestly, classic literature was fun, no, really, it is. It ended up resembling a BBC Sunday night production with added gore, trying to be tasteful then remembering too late that this was supposed to be a horror movie. Sadly, however noble the intentions it fell flat on its face; a weirder or more atmospheric approximation might have been a better bet than the try at a thrillfest. Music by Patrick Doyle.