Spoiler alert: As many of us are familiar with the story of Frankenstein, there are some revealing details ahead, though none that should ruin the film.
Think of Victor Frankenstein as the origin story to Mary Shelley’s original tale – you know the story of the monster, but pop culture is much less versed in the history of the mad scientist creator and his assistant Igor.
In this iteration, we begin in the circus, where a deformed and abused Hunchback/Clown (Daniel Radcliffe) pines for the lovely acrobat Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay of Downton Abbey) while acting as the troupe’s doctor. When she falls during her trapeze act, Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) rushes to assist, and joined by the Hunchback, they save her life. Frankenstein sees the wasted intelligence of the Hunchback, and seizes the opportunity to offer the him his freedom in exchange for assistance in his morally questionable research. A murderous rescue begins, the Hunchback assumes the identity of Victor’s absent roommate Igor, and from there, it’s a gory, madcap journey to the stormy-skyed laboratory where Frankenstein’s monster is born.
This isn’t director Paul McGuigan’s first time playing with modern British legend – he has directed four episodes of the BBC’s Sherlock in the initial two seasons, thus is well versed in handling abrasive yet alluring characters. Victor Frankenstein borrows so heavily from the 2009 Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law that it wouldn’t be a stretch to believe that the two were produced by the same creative team. Though the studios differ and none of the main crew overlaps, many of the same aesthetics appear – saturated color throughout, gratuitous use of slow motion, sudden orchestral punches to emphasize sometimes laughably dramatic freeze frames, and a main character that has moments of frenetic banter immediately followed by thoughts both reasonable and eloquent.
Like most gothic horror films, Victor Frankenstein relies heavily on circumstance. Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott, deviating from his role as Sherlock’s anarchist Moriarty to play a God-fearing rule enforcer) has picked up on Victor’s potentially illegal behavior, and is obsessed with searching Frankenstein’s flat and basement. So much so that when denied a warrant, he flouts the requirement and has Scotland Yard break in anyways. He’s later punished for this, which would make sense…. if warrants or Scotland Yard were something that existed in the 1790’s, when Frankenstein takes place. A quick five minutes on Google finds that Scotland Yard was not established until 1829; prior to that the Bow Street Runners and military forces would have been employed to keep the peace. However, they were neither as organized nor as meticulous as Scotland Yard, which leads me to believe that, in all but the most egregious of cases (or those involving high-ranking members of society), the lack of a warrant would not have been much hindrance.
The film’s medical logic also invites suspicion – an acrobat almost dies because a trained medical student who can revive dead body parts doesn’t know how to adjust a broken clavicle, but later on a character survives maiming and amputation without any major side effects. And for two incredibly astute men of scientific reason, it apparently occurs to neither Victor nor Igor to clean up the blood when their homunculus experiment gets loose in the Royal School of Medicine, leading to further investigation from the not-yet-existent Scotland Yard.
The most confusing theme of the film is the strong undercurrent of homoeroticism that permeates the interactions between Victor and Igor, and even between Victor and his benefactor, Finnegan (Freddie Fox). It can partially be explained away as that intense connection between brilliant minds that have finally found someone that understands their vision. However, Tumblr won’t have to dig far for inspiration or .gif sets for this fandom – there are multiple scenes where Victor looks about ready to kiss Igor more thoroughly than Edward ever did Bella, and Finnegan’s body language as Victor places a hand on his assistant’s arm screams of jealousy. Yet outside of physical cues, no romance arc is pursued between any of the men, which is almost a shame, as there’s arguably more emotional angst amongst those three then there is in Igor’s actual love story.
Lorelei quickly merges as one of Victor Frankenstein‘s major plusses. Period pieces tend to use the setting as an excuse for laziness with their female characters, and though Lorelai isn’t the strongest character in the film, she is more than window dressing. We never get her backstory, but she’s a talented acrobat in the circus, holds her own against Frankenstein in debate, and never asks Igor to choose between her or Victor. The romance between her and Igor is simple and sweet, with no sexual exploitation or manipulation. For a major Hollywood studio to have one of it’s leading females in a role that allows her to be successful, self-reliant, and fully clothed for the entire film is a miracle that, though it can’t save the movie entirely, elevates it above mediocre.
Design wise, the film is gorgeous. The circus and costumes pop in bright color against the desolate gray of industrial London, and despite less than stellar special effects (it’s obvious the lion’s share of that budget went to the homunculus sequence), the overlay of medical notation over live shots adds a sense of academia and discovery for the viewer, as if you get to read Igor’s notes and see into his mind, without any annoying voiceovers. Craig Armstrong’s score plays second fiddle to the large personalities and lush cinematography, but highlights the visuals perfectly in the moments it does get to shine. Pieces from contemporary composers are interspersed with his original score; kudos to the music department for choosing pieces that fit in the timeline, as Schubert was born in 1797 – still not perfect, but closer than Scotland Yard.
Victor Frankenstein has the star power to draw in a crowd…. if that star power had been advertised at all. Perhaps the TV buy was more aggressive, but the target audience of this film (geeks who love McAvoy and Radcliffe) are mainly cord cutters, and the social media and physical ad push were almost non-existent. It’s November placement feels like Fox didn’t have another film to release for Thanksgiving – normally genre films are reserved for Halloween monster fever or the lame-duck January/February slots, not released on holiday weekends when you need something to appease the whole family.
Overall, the film isn’t bad – truth be told, if you can disconnect and watch it as a fun monster movie/mad scientist story with decent performances by beloved actors, it’s a pretty good popcorn flick. There’s even a nod to Young Frankenstein – when Lorelei speaks to Victor for the first time, she pronounces it “Frahnk-en-steen”, as Gene Wilder would have us do, and McAvoy is quick to correct. With the fanbase the cast could command, there’s a fair chance it will make back it’s $40 million budget with room to spare. However, up against Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur and the rising tide of Oscar hopefuls releasing this week, it’s likely that the life of this film will be as short as that of Frankenstein’s failed experiments – but hopefully this one won’t attempt to kill us for resurrecting it.
Victor Frankenstein releases nationwide November 25, 2015, and has been rated PG-13 for macabre images, violence and a sequence of destruction.
Directed by: Paul McGuigan
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott, Freddie Fox