It must be a thankless task trying to bring something new to such a well-worked property as Frankenstein. So first off, let’s just give props to the makers of this new take for trying. The twist they’ve gone for is telling the tale from the point of view of the mad doctor’s malformed assistant Igor. He’s played with committed sincerity by Daniel Radcliffe, while James McAvoy takes on the juicier title role.
And watching these two young luvvies spar with each other to see who can do the dodgiest bit of acting in each scene is one of the chief joys of the film, but let’s get to them in a bit.
Before that we should say that though this film is generally getting a kicking from critics, for all its flaws it is a fun B-picture and much better than a lot of the Friday night fodder you get hogging half the screens at the local multiplex. It’s pacey, witty enough, has a couple of solid ideas, and the production design is stunning.
The story has been relocated to fin-de-siècle Victorian London with gorgeous detail filling every frame. The city is, like the monster, stitched together from disparate parts so we get clashing leitmotifs of the traditional and the modern, Wren’s architecture looming over Bovril ads and gasometers. The interiors are nicely steampunkish too with Frankenstein’s flat appearing as if an artisanal butcher has set up shop in Sir John Soane’s Museum.
Most of the horror comes in the form of grisly Grand Guignol elements designed to gross-out rather than scare: eye-balls in jelly, dishes of wriggling organs, and the first prototype of the monster is a fly-infested meat puppet. In other words, between the panoramic shots of London and the Halloweenish body horror (McAvoy actually sucks out the pus from Radcliffe’s hump) there’s more than enough visual panache to justify a trip to the cinema.
But let’s get back to the acting, which is probably the main problem with the film. Both Radcliffe and McAvoy seem like nice lads, so we don’t particularly relish saying that they are both quite bad. And we need to caveat that again by saying that their fruity, over-and-under-the-top performances are nevertheless pretty enjoyable.
McAvoy goes for ham, literally foaming at the mouth at one point, his eyes rolling around as he looks for another bit of scenery to chew on. Possibly he decided to give the desperately wooden Radcliffe a few lessons, forgetting that he was actually being filmed and all that emoting would end up on screen.
Then there’s Radcliffe, who really, really wants to be good once but probably never will be. He’s exactly the same limp-wristed try-hard you know from the wizard saga. Probably, he’d have been a decent children’s TV presenter but here his instincts are way off and he simply has no idea what to do with this novel interpretation of Igor. The scene at a ball where he tries to impress his trapeze artist girlfriend (Jessica Brown Findlay) by doing a hillbilly dance is perhaps the most amusing of his many bad choices.
The strangest thing about the duo however is that they actually seem to be channelling the two stars of 1994’s similarly overripe Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. McAvoy’s English accent sounds uncannily like Kenneth Branagh, while Radcliffe in clown make-up and mad hair is the spitting image of Helena Bonham Carter. And yes, the film does encourage your mind to meander to such silly comparisons, especially as it loses its charm in the by-the-numbers finale.
But while the stars flounder, there is Andrew Scott lurking at the edges of the story like a hungry bull shark to show them how it’s done. He somehow manages to turn his underwritten and slightly pointless detective Inspector Turpin into the only believable character in the film.
Tosh then but enjoyable tosh — and London does look great.
Victor Frankenstein is on general release at cinemas.