Movie review: Victor Frankenstein
James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe pick up the loose body parts of Mary Shelley’s Gothic classic and sew together a whole new story about the dangers of unbridled creativity.
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott
Directed by: Paul McGuigan
Running time: 113 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
By Katherine Monk
Some movies only make sense if you’ve been a 13-year-old girl, and Victor Frankenstein is one of them.
An action-adventure movie based on Mary Shelley’s Gothic classic about a handsome but mad scientist and the marauding creature he creates in his unholy laboratory, this latest take features James McAvoy as the titular man of intelligence and Daniel Radcliffe as the hunchback assistant, Igor.
We’ve seen other, more mature actors play these parts, but this youthful vision actually makes a lot of sense because the whole story is crafted to appeal to female sensibility. In Shelley’s suspenseful prose, we can feel a forbidden throb, a dark desire, the hard outline of a manly form without morality, which is where pubescent girls kind of live.
It’s why horror is actually a highly feminine genre, a fact that is too often misunderstood by male directors who simply go out and hack people limb from limb hoping to give us a thrill. The genre, particularly the Gothic variety, is rooted in a female knowledge of blood, and was crafted from a need to override the morality police by handing sexuality over to fictional demons.
What are monsters but a suppressed desire to commune with irrational physicality?
This Frankenstein understands these core values, as witnessed by the casting choices: James McAvoy is a serious actor who, after playing the young Professor Xavier in The X-Men, has a fervent following among pre-teen females. And Radcliffe will probably always be synonymous with Harry Potter, the little wizard who saved the world from Voldemort.
Both playing characters in their 20s without stinking of testosterone and Red Bull, these two actors have just the right mix of morning stubble and non-threatening, sweet, boyish sensitivity to set a pubescent heart on fire, so even if they don’t feel all that traditional, they fit into this nicely furnished retro rail car of bloody narrative like two porcelain faced dolls in period clothes.
More importantly, there’s an easy chemistry between the two leads — a glowing fusion of common generational touchstones and professional respect that allows both actors to unbuckle their breast-plates and emote with full matinee idol flourishes.
These boys are really going to the mat for the monster story, and because they’re so into it, it’s hard not to be pulled into the swirling vortex of silliness and millennial revisionism that has Igor take on the romantic lead, and Victor play the malformed outsider.
Indeed, the movie opens at the circus, where we see a hunchback clown (Radcliffe) swoon over the trapeze artist. When she nearly dies from a fall, the clown and a young physician (McAvoy) in the audience come to her rescue and save her from a would-be fatal injury.
Complete strangers to each other, they bond over their knowledge of the human anatomy, a fetish realized on screen with chalk drawings of body parts superimposed on the flesh — as though we were looking at illustrations from an early medical text.
It’s all part of director McGuigan’s kinetic style that brings a picture-book quality to the mise-en-scene. Whether it’s the textured costumes plucked from a Dickens wardrobe, the deeply saturated frames that conjure cross-hatched shadows, or the slightly exaggerated computer-generated tableaux that recreate turn-of-the-century London at its coal-fired dirtiest, Victor Frankenstein successfully creates a steam-punk inspired universe for its familiar plot.
Thanks to the revisions, there are still a few surprises in the offing, but most of what we see reaffirms the standard cautionary tale: Mortals are not supposed to dip their wee nib in the inkwell of the Almighty in a bid to write their name across the universe.
Technology can give us tools that seem miraculous, but we have no business mucking about in the business of creation — at least that’s the idea, and it still holds a lot of water, even a century and a half later.
Director McGuigan doesn’t hold back on the gore factor here, but it’s not too scary. One of the more memorable images involves a pair of disembodied eyes sitting in a conductive agar that are capable of moving and dilating.
Accompanied by bursts of intricate medical jargon and plenty of realistic looking flesh, pus, and bone, the results feel like a kids’ version of The Knick, with McAvoy playing a semi-castrated version of Clive Owen and Radcliffe absorbing the sidekick role of a man recently emancipated from his shackles.
For those who have never been a 13-year-old girl, the romantic part of the film will be the hardest to swallow as Igor and the trapeze artist form a sexual liaison that feels entirely forced, but that’s only more proof this movie wasn’t made for grown-ups looking for big chills.
Victor Frankenstein is a matinee-style bodice-ripper with a freak’s physiology and a tender pre-teen heart. In other words, everything the Gothic novel was designed to be in its day, updated and dusted off for a new generation looking at a whole new reality through the electrical agar of the digital age.
THE EX-PRESS, November 26, 2015