WRITTEN REVIEW – Victor Frankenstein (2015)
Directed by: Paul McGuigan
Written by: Max Landis
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott & Freddie Fox
Music: Craig Armstrong
Release Date: December 3rd 2015
Period action films seem to be all the rage nowadays, despite the fact that very few of them have been successes. Part of that probably stems from Hollywood’s trend to find any and all recognisable properties and try to make them into mainstream films regardless of the fit. We’ve had ‘Dracula: Untold‘, ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter‘ and kinda ‘I, Frankenstein‘ (set in the modern day) as well as other literary or historical adaptations receiving an action-movie slant. However, none of these films have actually made any money or been profitable for movie studios.
With the exception of one and that’s Guy Ritchie’s ‘Sherlock Holmes‘ from 2009 which was a huge December success and even spawned a franchise for Warner Bros. with a sequel two years later and a third movie currently in development hell due to scheduling issues. It’s clear that 20th Century Fox want to capture that buddy-action-period formula and add another bolt of lightening to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel “Frankenstein”. The buddies are James McAvoy as the titular Victor and Daniel Radcliffe as his assistant Igor. Can this formula work for another literary icon or is this a revived monster that cannot be tamed?
In Victorian London a travelling circus comes to the city where one of the attractions is a nameless hunchback (Radcliffe). After a chance encounter with local medical student, Victor Frankenstein (McAvoy), Victor breaks the hunchback out of the circus and makes him a partner in his secret experiments and gives him the name Igor. Victor is planning to combine different animal parts to create life but he is under scrutiny from Inspector Turpin from Scotland Yard who considers his work immoral. Victor and Igor quickly become fugitives and find help from fellow student Finnegan (Fox) who will provide funds from his family estate in return for an army of undead soldiers. Can Igor set Victor on the right path or will he forever be defined by the monster he seeks to create?
With this movie trying to recapture the ‘Sherlock Holmes‘ formula it’s appropriate to talk about the central relationship between Victor and Igor first. While the original concept of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” isn’t exactly the most realistic or credible, we accept it because it’s a central instigator for the themes of that source material. Here, however, the relationship between the two really doesn’t have much credibility to it. Igor is an orphaned, uneducated hunchback at the circus and almost everyone he works with mocks him and abuses him both verbally and physically because of his deformity. However, he’s ALSO a medical genius and is the circus’ Doctor. Victor sees him treat an acrobat who has fallen from a great height and can’t breath and he decides to takes the hunchback in, gives him a name and a home but there’s very little chemistry between the two in terms of a friendship.
Yes, Victor gives Igor a lot and even manages to remove his hunchback (which turns out to be a cyst on his back which Victor drains) and gives him a back-brace so he can walk properly. But he doesn’t particularly treat him well and when it becomes clear that Victor’s mind has gone completely off the rails there’s not much reason for Igor to stick around with him. Igor is a medical genius (somehow) so why can’t he get a job in that field? Igor has very competent social skills and once he gives himself a shower and a haircut is a young heart-throb so when Victor tries to tell Igor that he’d never survive in the outside world it just doesn’t ring true and neither does their “friendship”. Maybe if Victor had also taught Igor everything he knew about medicine and human physiology then the relationship would be more credible because then Victor would have truly “created” Igor.
Radcliffe and McAvoy are definitely trying though and it’s clear that the two of them are having a lot of fun on set but it’s not a relationship worth investing in or rooting for. So when the inevitable and contrived 2nd act separation of the two takes place ‘Victor Frankenstein‘ becomes rather boring because you know they’re going to make up again and it’s also unengaging because you don’t WANT them to make up.
But at least the two actors are having fun, particularly James McAvoy who is definitely over-acting but this is not a phoned-in, humdrum performance. He’s really invested in this role which is admirable and he’s an incredibly engaging screen-presence even if the movie around him isn’t nearly as interesting. Daniel Radcliffe is also an interesting Igor (a character not originally from Mary Shelley’s book but instead a product of the 1931 ‘Frankenstein‘ Universal Pictures horror film) but he’s basically on the same intellectual level and stature as Victor but without the god complex meaning that there’s not as much of a contrast between the two as there should be. This isn’t so much a Sherlock/Watson pairing so much as a Sherlock/Mycroft pairing which isn’t quite intriguing or endearing enough to stick with for almost two hours.
This could have been a decent 90 minute film but with superfluous elements the movie’s priorities don’t feel properly managed and it drags its feet for 30 minutes longer than it needs to. There’s a love story between Igor and a circus acrobat which feels very tacked-on and doesn’t even go anywhere (other then force tension between Victor and Igor because of course that’s the only reason to add a woman to a buddy-guy movie) as well as a sub-plot with Detective Turpin played by Andrew Scott. Scott is a very nuanced actor as demonstrated in the TV series “Sherlock” and the movie ‘Pride‘ but here he seems to be directionless. He plays a god-fearing detective who considers Victor’s experiments to be an affront to his religion and that’s his ONLY motivation for wanting to stop him. That’s not to say religion isn’t worth getting passionate about, but it’s taken to such ridiculous extremes that he’s painted as a cartoon, moustache-twirling villain. They dismember him in the 2nd act of the movie so he comes back with a wooden arm only for him to leave the movie shortly afterwards without accomplishing anything. Why was he in the second act of this film?
And then there’s the inclusion of Finnegan who only seems to be in the movie so Victor can have unlimited funds to conduct his experiments. In the trailer to the movie, he says he wants an army of undead creatures “one million strong” but that didn’t find its way into the movie for some reason so he actually doesn’t have a motivation for helping Victor conduct his ungodly plans. Another element from the trailers that’s not in the movie is Igor and his partner Lorelai having a child. That seems to have been left on the cutting room floor. We even get to meet Victor’s father in one scene played by Charles Dance but he serves no purpose and this element of the movie doesn’t add up to anything despite a big entrance. It feels like this movie has been cut to death in the editing room and re-assembled together like some kind of Frankenstein’s monster.
Speaking of the monster, as awesome as it looks, it comes in WAAAAY too late into the movie. While movie adaptations don’t have to be carbon copies of their source material, you get the sense that ‘Victor Frankenstein‘ would have been better served by following the book more closely (sans Igor’s inclusion). Or, better yet, rip-off ‘Sherlock Holmes‘ more in terms of visual style and energy. In the ‘Sherlock Holmes‘ movie we get an insight into how Holmes sees the world and how everything goes into slow-motion and he visualises everything that’s about to happen or what is in his vicinity. While ‘Victor Frankenstein‘ flirts with this idea by giving Victor and Igor a form of X-Ray vision the movie doesn’t do anything exciting with it. An early draft of the script (released online) shows how Victor uses this in an early fight scene but, like most elements of that draft, it has not wound up in the finished film.
This results in a film that doesn’t really know what it is or who it’s trying to appeal to. As a buddy-action movie it doesn’t have much in terms of action or conflict and the friendship isn’t very believable. As a drama about a man trying to create life it doesn’t explore these themes adequately and even tacks on a backstory about why Victor wants to create life in the first place but it doesn’t justify the “twist” reveal. And as a horror there’s not much too it and leaves those elements far too late into the movie and the romance sub-plot feels lazy. None of these genres are given the time of day resulting in a film that doesn’t please anybody.
This is director Paul McGuigan’s first film debut since 2009’s ‘Push‘ but he’s done lots of high-concept TV work since then on shows like “Sherlock”, “Smash” and “Devious Maids”. It’s clear that his TV work has only enhanced his skills because in spite of its narrative flaws there’s a lot admire about the production of ‘Victor Frankenstein‘. The sets look expansive, impressive and full of detail. The locations feel like places you’d love to explore the nooks and crannies of and there are lots of great sets in the movie, some of which only appear for a few seconds on-screen. It’s an expensive looking movie with great camera-work, lavish costumes with great lighting and atmosphere.
The make-up is also very strong, particularly with Frankenstein’s monster at the end which doesn’t get nearly enough screen-time but is a great mixture of the 1931 Boris Karloff look but with modern sensibilities. There are a lot of practical elements to the film, such as animatronics creatures with strong CGI helping to enhance their presence rather than act as a shortcut. The music, by the ALWAYS brilliant Craig Armstrong, is also great with lots of strong tracks worth a standalone listen.
‘Victor Frankenstein‘ is not a complete and total failure (though I don’t imagine 20th Century Fox putting that quote on the DVD cover). It has great production design, music and the performances by McAvoy and Radcliffe are strong even if it’s in the service of a re-imagining that feels unfocused and not particularly inspired. But all the different genre elements feel underutilised and don’t gel together and we have another 2015 movie with promise that seems to have been hacked together in the editing room, not to mention desperately baiting for a sequel at the very end despite there being few places these characters can go. It’s not the worst movie to bare the “Frankenstein” name but it’s still a hodge-podge that’s not worth your time.
I give ‘Victor Frankenstein‘ 2 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 13th Dec 15