Branagh turns De Niro into the original monster piece Frenzied 'Frankenstein'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

And who was the most important stylistic influence on Kenneth Branagh for his version of "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein"? Was it James Whale, director of the 1931 original? Was it Robert Wiene, director of the archetypal German expressionist monster masterpiece, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"? Or possibly even Terrence Fischer, who did the Frankenstein movies for Hammer Films in England in the delirious early '60s?

No. I think it was . . . Roone Arledge.

What Branagh has done is turn the Mary Shelley novel into "Monday Night Football." Are you ready for some Frankenstein? It's all here except the Goodyear Blimp: zooms, swirls, slow-mo, rapid cutting, immense close-ups of damaged men.

In fact, the principal flaw in the film is that Branagh's technique is so overwrought and hyperjazzy, it all but exiles most human emotions from the film. It's just going too fast; you never get a fix on people or their motives. He's reduced the story to sheer spectacle and gotten rid of most of the intimacy. It's not a movie, it's a big game.

That's the bad news. The good news, I suppose, is that when your optic nerves stop firing off pinwheels in your mind from all the flashiness on the screen, it may occur to you that Branagh has done a good job of restoring Shelley's original intentions to the screen. He has, consequently, delivered a fresher Frankenstein, a purer Frankenstein, a de-Karloffized Frankenstein.

It even begins with the looks. Instead of a blockhead in elevator shoes with bolts in his neck like the mighty Boris, Robert De Niro's nameless monster looks like Tom Smothers on steroids, after a date with a chain saw. More, this monster is self-aware; he has a melancholy disposition, a sense of relationship to the mere humans who scurry beneath him. He's like a sailor in a liberty port: He's lonely, restless and he wants a date.

Deriving its structure from the original, the screenplay by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont begins in the Arctic, where an insanely ambitious captain (Aidan Quinn) -- representing the ruthless spirit of knowledge over life -- drives his mutinous crew toward the North Pole. And who should they encounter but a mad Victor Frankenstein (Branagh, looking like the young Percy Shelley, complete to flowing ginger locks and a buff, Nautilized body) pursuing his own creation, the monster. Victor, collapsing, then tells the captain his story, a cautionary tale on the classic dichotomy, the conflict that asks, "What price knowledge?"

Victor has paid the highest price and he cautions the captain against such sacrifice. He tells how, shattered by the death of his mother in childbirth, he became a crusader against "it." It -- you know, death. Thus, after years of study, he managed to "re-animate" a creature composed of various arms and limbs of murderers and the brain of an older professor, played by John Cleese. From the get-go, the creature has what might be called a bad attitude problem. Why? The movie doesn't say (there's no cute stuff about Igor getting the wrong brain; in fact, there's no Igor.)

Then, under the frenzy, the movie settles down almost into a plot parody of another recent De Niro film, "Cape Fear." It's the one about the psychopath who decides to terrorize one specific man through the vessel of his family; much of "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" watches as the brute -- exiled from humanity by his size, his ugliness, his tendency to violence -- gradually destroys the Frankensteins of Geneva, Switzerland.

The film, though exceptionally violent, isn't mindlessly violent. The creature, as loquacious as Howard Stern, is at pains to explain his cruelty. He wants to be understood, and he and Victor have many probing discussions on the ice pack, between sequences of child and wife murder.

By its second half, it's as if Branagh has gotten tired of plotting camera moves and the movie settles down somewhat, although when he's exploited (by the monster) into creating a bride for the bad boy, he returns to Monday Night Football. The process, for the scientifically inclined, seems to involve pressure cooking a corpse in amniotic fluid while goosing it with electric eels. It isn't pretty.

The movie is so energetic it never has time to get campy. It's too busy trying to find one place to place a camera where a camera has never been placed. Possibly they should have tried Helmet-cam.

"Mary Shelley's Frankenstein"

Starring Kenneth Branagh and Robert De Niro

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Released by Tri-Star

Rated R

** 1/2

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