Saturday, April 23, 2016

400 Years Since Shakespeare’s Passing

Today marks 400 years since William Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil.  Only two years ago, also on April 23, we were celebrating the 450th anniversary of his birth.  Yes, historians aren’t completely certain of the date he was born, but it’s likely that Shakespeare died on his 52nd birthday.  Because it’s the quadricentennial of the famous playwright’s passing, I feel the need to write a post in commemoration.  However, I don’t have anything on hand.  So, I’m re-posting the article I wrote for Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, on April 23, 2014.  Of course, an apple, cleft in two, is not more twin than these two blogposts — because they’re the same one.  But I couldn’t let the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death pass with my blog untouched.  

Jon Finch in Roman Polanski’s ‘Macbeth’ (1971)

Here’s a nice article from the website Word & Film, which discusses ten Shakespeare movies to watch as a celebration of the Bard’s 45oth birthday.  Yes, 450 years ago today, William Shakespeare was born (and 398 years ago, would die on the same day), and watching a film based on one of his plays would certainly be a fitting way to celebrate.

I particularly like this list’s inclusion of Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1965, which I have written about elsewhere on this blog, based on the Henriad), Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957, based on Macbeth), and Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968, based on … you figure it out).  I would enthusiastically endorse all of these three Shakespeare films!

I would add two others: Roman Polanski’s Macbeth and Peter Brook’s King Lear (both 1971). 

In particular, Polanski’s Macbeth is an appropriately cynical vision of what is arguably Shakespeare’s most cynical play.  Perhaps most infamous for Lady Macbeth’s (Francesca Annis) nude “out, damned spot” soliloquy, the starkness of the grim setting reflects both Polanski’s personal despair (it was his first film after the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson Family) and the precariousness of a Western world that had lost its confidence in the face of the Vietnam War and other global calamities.  Particularly intriguing is Polanski’s portrayal of Ross (John Stride) as an unscrupulous opportunist, not intrinsic to Shakespeare’s play, who sides with Macbeth’s (Jon Finch) usurpation when fortune favors it but turns against the tyrant after a petty slight.  And rather than end on a note of triumph when the throne is rightfully restored, Polanski’s film ends with the insinuation that the madness of regicide will continue.  (I’m guessing that one reason Polanski’s version is not included in the Word & Film article is that it limited itself to only one adaptation per play.)

Peter Brook’s ‘King Lear’ (1971)

Brook’s black & white, two-hours-plus King Lear, which begins and ends with the same bleak tone, is a rather difficult film to watch.  It portrays a barren land where the people aren’t given much of a reason to survive, and the viewer suspects that the dead are more fortunate than the living.  Still, Brook’s intriguing use of jump cuts and odd camera angles intimates the possibility of a freer and more hopeful world beyond the desolation of Lear’s fractured realm.

Calista Flockhart as Helena in Michael Hoffman’s
19th-century-set ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1999)

Given the thematic richness of his theatrical works, and their many fascinating interpretations over the years, there will probably never be a definitive film version of any Shakespeare play — although Polanski’s Macbeth and Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet come close.  Still, I haven’t yet seen a completely satisfying film version of one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The Word & Film article recommends Michael Hoffman’s 1999 adaptation, which features some scrumptious cinematography and natty 19th-century costumes, but its Arthur Rackham-inspired vision of the fairy world seems more mechanical than magical, and its tossed salad of British and American accents is distracting.  (However, I’m happy to see the mercurial Calista Flockhart, here cast as Helena, in anything!)

Helen Mirren as Titania and Brian Glover as Bottom in Elijah Moshinsky’s
spooky BBC ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1981)

Another Dream apparently inspired by Rackham is Elijah Moshinsky’s 1981 BBC version, which, in its replacement of the fanciful with the frightening, is more of a nightmare.  An additional adaptation of same, Peter Hall’s 1968 film, begins with disorienting jump cuts and other cinematic devices that don’t establish a firm sense of place; it would have been wiser for Hall to have saved this disorientation for the magical woodland, for there is not enough to distinguish the inhibition-free woods from the more staid and civilized setting of Athens.  And Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s Hollywoodized 1936 interpretation, with James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck, looks dated with the air of a film weighted with self-conscious importance and antiquated staging.  I’m still waiting for a Midsummer Night’s Dream that will capture the playfulness of the love stories and the magic of the fairyland. 

Paul Rogers as Bottom and Judi Dench as Titania in Peter Hall’s
disorienting ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1968)

Happy 450th, Mr. Shakespeare!  Where would the English language and the performing arts — and the movies! — be without you?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

I don’t watch ‘Gilmore Girls’ for the mushy stuff

Lauren Graham as Lorelai Gilmore and Scott Patterson as Luke Danes in
the upcoming Netflix revival of ‘Gilmore Girls’

Just for the record: I don’t care who ends up with whom, romantic-relationship-wise, on the four-episode Gilmore Girls revival, to be streamed by Netflix later this year.  When the series originally ended in 2007, many fans were left hanging, wanting some resolution to the love lives of Lorelai and Rory, the titular mother-daughter duo.  But as far as I’m concerned, Lorelai and longtime love interest Luke could never speak to each other again. Instead of ending up with any of her sequential boyfriends, Dean or Jess or Logan, Rory could finish the series romantically unattached for all I care. The show’s fascinating characters and scopious situations — ranging from the delightfully quirky to the uncomfortably authentic — are developed well enough to thrive beyond any romantic entanglements.  (Actually, I ’ship Rory and Paris, but that’s never gonna go canon.) I just want to know how showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino originally envisioned Gilmore Girls to end and — in context, when the episode is broadcast, and not before — what the fabled “final four words” are.

The cut-loose kiss between Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel, left) and Paris Geller (Liza Weill)
on spring break in the original series.  I doubt their relationship will go beyond that.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

12 Cool Crowd Pleasers

Was my list of “10 Favorite Films” too art-housey for you?  Okay, to make up for it, here is a list of twelve movies whose carefully honed, audience-tested appeal has won a place in the sprocket holes of my heart, oldest to youngest:



IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)

With crackling dialogue and a sure-footed storyline, the film that defined the romantic comedy. 



A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935)

The Marx Brothers rein in their explosive anarchy to appeal to a wider audience, but the results are still sublime.  



CASABLANCA (1943)

Made in 1942 but officially released in January 1943, it won the latter year’s Oscar for Best Picture.  Hollywood’s studio-era apotheosis.  



SEVEN SAMURAI (1954)

Epic. Action-packed. Awesome.



THE APARTMENT (1960)

Silver-screen Hollywood craftsmanship at its heartwarming best.  (Listen to the DVD’s commentary by Bruce Block to realize just how much thought and care went into this film.)



FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965)

Shoot-’em-up excitement with an art-house edge. 


THE WILD BUNCH (1969)

The Seven Samurai (or at least their cowboy counterparts) saunter south of the border.


MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)

The funniest film I’ve ever seen. No joke. 



MAD MAX 2 (a.k.a. The Road Warrior, 1981)

Casablanca with a case of road rage. 



OUT OF SIGHT (1998)

Steven Soderbergh rebounds from his mid-career doldrums to capture Elmore Leonard’s semi-cynical, semi-sentimental romantic roundelay between a U.S. marshal and an escaped con.  Exhilarating and arresting. 


SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998)

Stop saying that Saving Private Ryan was robbed of its Oscar! Shakespeare in Love is a compelling, character-driven masterwork with lots of laughs and an air-tight story. Methinks its critics protest too much. 



KING KONG (2005)

Peter Jackson’s Kong-sized do-over of the 1933 classic is going to give CGI-heavy remakes of pre-sold properties a good name. 
(However, the film’s brief portrayal of the Skull Island natives as barbaric savages is a big step backwards.)

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Dalton — Timothy Dalton

I have a female friend who’s a big Sean Connery fan.  When we first met, she seemed to come up with an excuse to bring up the movie star most associated with playing secret agent James Bond 007 in each of our conversations.  Sean Connery this — Sean Connery that — Sean Connery the other thing.  She talks about him less these days, but shortly after we first met, I’m sure the Scottish movie star’s ears were ringing whenever my friend and I shot the breeze.  One evening, she was hosting a James Bond-themed event at a local restaurant.  I ended up sitting at a table with my friend and some of her companions.  That night, one of my friend’s friends asked me a question that my friend herself had never asked: “Who’s your favorite Bond?”  I replied, “Timothy Dalton.”  My friend did a double take at the table: “Whuh?”  She probably just assumed that Connery was everybody’s favorite 007 and was thrown for a loop when I — her sounding board on all things Connery — proved her assumption to be untrue. 

At the time, I was aware that my pro-Dalton opinion was in the distinct minority.  I’m not the world’s biggest Bond fan, but I did see most of the movies and follow the literature about the character from time to time, so I know it wasn’t long after Dalton inherited the role from Roger Moore in 1987’s The Living Daylights that many Bond aficionados started grousing about the Welsh actor’s performance.  Among ardent fans, the vituperation was especially venomous, but it was never really clear to me exactly why these fans were so upset.  I got the idea that these grumblers merely thought that Dalton’s inadequacy in the role was self-evident and no further explanation was needed.  Dalton made only one more film as Bond, Licence [sic] to Kill (1989), but the criticism continued.  As the years went by, this opinion seemed to be set in stone: the fans liked Roger Moore; they liked Pierce Brosnan; they loved Sean Connery, of course.  You could even find a few to put in a good word for the one-off George Lazenby.  But they hated Timothy Dalton.  And I wasn’t given a straight answer as to why. 

It’s difficult to find any of the scathing anti-Dalton diatribes of the 1980s on the Web at the moment, but as one Internet poster puts it: “All I’ve ever heard from friends ... is that [The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill] are lesser Bond films and that Dalton sucks.”  

With the latest Bond adventure, Spectre, now in theatres, I was contemplating writing a defense of Dalton-as-007 on this blog.  But as I read over some on-line articles in preparation, I learned that my disquisition of Dalton was no longer necessary: Dalton-as-Bond now has quite a few advocates on the Internet.  It appears that several fans have reconsidered Dalton’s two outings as Bond and found more to champion than to criticize. 

Timothy Dalton as James Bond 007 in ‘The Living Daylights’ (1987)

Looking for an explanation of this reversal of popular opinion, I stumbled upon this theory: Dalton inherited the role from Roger Moore, who played the secret agent as a semi-comical figure.  Moore’s penchant for dryly raising an eyebrow each time he heard a double entendre became a signature of the film series.  The only Moore Bond that I really liked — indeed, my favorite film in the series up to that time — was For Your Eyes Only (1981), which had a more serious plot than usual and a more feral performance by Moore than usual.  But by the time Moore retired from the role after A View to a Kill (1985), the Bond movies were noted more for their camp than their cloak and dagger. 

Behind the scenes, it’s well known that Dalton was first offered the role of Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), but the actor, then in his twenties, felt himself too young for the part and turned it down, whereupon it was later offered to Lazenby.  Also, after Moore’s departure, the creators’ first choice as his replacement was Pierce Brosnan, who by then had made a name for himself in the humorous detective TV series Remington Steele (1982-87), but at the last minute, the show activated an option on Brosnan’s contract, making him unavailable to play Bond.  With Brosnan out of the picture, in both senses of the term, Dalton was persuaded to accept the part he declined 18 years before. 

Poster for ‘Licence to Kill’ (1989)

When Dalton took over the role of Bond, he and the films’ creators wanted to return to a more serious interpretation of the character:

[Dalton] made two Bond films, both noteworthy more for his darker, brooding take on the role than for the films themselves. Dalton sought to get away from Moore’s jokey boulevardier and instead played Bond as a man with an edge, an interpretation he felt was closer to how author Ian Fleming had depicted the character in the books. Indeed, Dalton was often spotted on the sets of his 007 films paging through the original Fleming novels as a reference aid.

The audience’s ill-preparedness for this darker view of James Bond, it’s been hypothesized, alienated many Roger Moore-weaned fans from Dalton’s version of the character.  Only more recently, with Daniel Craig’s similar approach to the part, has Dalton’s work been reappraised and accepted by a large number of Bond fans.  And many are now voicing the opinion that I have held for quite some time: it’s unfortunate that Dalton — due to a legal dispute that forced the series into a hiatus until his contract expired — didn’t do more than two films as 007.  As one writer says of the fans’ new acceptance of Dalton as James Bond:

The quiet, self-effacing actor … has always kept his private life away from the tabloids, has always been loyal to the Bond franchise … without surrendering himself to endless retrospective chat shows and conventions. And perhaps as a result, people are finally beginning to appreciate his two Bond films for the stylish, underrated thrillers they have always been.

Dalton and the filmmakers didn’t only want to revise Bond’s character; they also wanted to tweak other aspects of the franchise.  The actor’s second entry, Licence to Kill, is a good case in point.  Where most of James Bond’s previous villains had been cartoonish characters with an eye toward world domination, Licence to Kill put 007 up against a topical nemesis: a drug lord, Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), who already controls his own corner of the world and is bent on keeping it.  This was a wise choice since the Cold War was winding down in 1989, so Bond’s antagonists sympathetic to the Soviet Union wouldn’t be as threatening as in years past.  And in moving the milieu from a conflict losing its menace to one ripped from the headlines, Licence to Kill made the story’s environment more realistic and hardened the characters. 
 
Robert Davi as drug lord Franz Sanchez in ‘Licence to Kill’
The film diverged from the formula in other ways as well.  Where Bond movies had previously tended to be set in at least two different countries on two different continents, all of Licence to Kill is set in the same area: south Florida and northern Latin America.  (In the movie’s biggest false note, it gives its fictional Latin American banana republic the English name of “Isthmus.”)  Instead of Licence to Kill having Bond given his assignment by M, 007 goes rogue to avenge a friend, supplying the agent with a more rebellious bite.  And instead of the villain’s palatial lair exploding in a massive fireball at the story’s climax, what detonates is a gas tanker after a high-speed chase. 

But Licence to Kill subverts still more.  As the most casual observer of the film canon knows, an obligatory moment of each movie is when 007 announces himself to someone as “Bond — James Bond.” In the previous Bond films, the scene consistently comes across as a moment of confident coolness, an eagerly awaited announcement that our unflappable, invincible hero has arrived. The moment in the series isn’t so much the character introducing himself as it is a moment of dauntless self-declaration. (Do I really need to say anything about how entrenched these three words of film dialogue have become in our popular culture?)  But when Dalton says this ultra-important line in License to Kill, it’s during an anomalous moment: when he extends his hand in introduction to Sanchez.  In Licence to Kill, Bond isn't so much announcing the arrival of the hero to the audience as he is merely making the bad guy’s acquaintance. And then, Sanchez blows off Bond by refusing to shake his hand.

In the other movies, “Bond — James Bond” are strong words of self-assertion. In Licence to Kill, they’re convivial words preceding a snub. I think that the Bond fans in 1989 were looking forward to this line in the film, but they didn’t get the moment that they had expected.  These sorts of small deviations from the previous Bond films may have put off the contemporaneous fans even more from Dalton’s interpretation of the secret agent. 

But I’m glad to hear that many Bond fans are now revising their harsh opinions of Dalton’s work in the film series, so any further inarticulate advocacy from me is unnecessary.  Although Dalton only appeared in two movies as James Bond, those offerings, The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, remain among the best in the series, despite the latter’s underperformance at the box office.  However, Daniel Craig’s newer rendition of Bond has taken the venerated cinema cycle to a whole new level.  Craig’s films as Bond — Casino Royale (2006), Quantum of Solace (2008), Skyfall (2012), and now Spectre (2015) — have dazzlingly ratcheted up the action, the spectacle, the humanity, and the overall impact of what is on the screen.  Craig’s 007 efforts will be the new measure for future films in the franchise.  Still, we should spare a thought for the Bond actor who tried to do what Daniel Craig is now doing, but who was at first pilloried by the fans for it: Timothy Dalton. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Diversity in Casting: An Exception I’d Make

Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in ‘Pan’ (2015)

As I’ve said several times before, limiting my remarks to the mainstream U.S. entertainment industry: Due to a historical lack of opportunities for minority thespians, characters of color ought to be portrayed by actors of color, ideally actors who are the same race (although not necessarily the same ethnicity) as the roles they play.  It’s unfortunate that some people refuse to see this issue in a historical perspective and insist that reserving non-white roles for non-white performers is unreasonable racial territorialism that goes against the make-believe at the heart of storytelling.  But they are wrong, and making certain that minority characters are played by minority thespians — at least for the time being — redresses past discrimination and past invisibility in the entertainment industry.  This is an issue that I feel very strongly about. 

At the same time, I wouldn’t set that standard in stone as a hard-and-fast “rule” that must never be contravened.  Aside from such a “rule” probably being an unconstitutional infringement on free speech, there may be things to be gained by casting a character of color (or one ostensibly so) with a Caucasian performer.  However, I believe that exceptions to this rule would be few and far between. 

For example, in 1997 and again in 2013, English actor Patrick Stewart essayed Othello in two U.S. touring productions of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy.  However, where previous white interpreters of the Moor would use cosmetics to darken their features, Stewart played the part without such maquillage, and the rest of the cast, playing historically white characters, was all African American.  In other words, Stewart’s productions of Othello flipped the racial composition of the play from a black man among whites to a white man among blacks, allowing the audience to view the racial dynamics of the work from a different perspective.  That was a rare example of a Caucasian actor taking a lead “minority” role in a production while still giving uncommon opportunities to performers of color and making the issue of race a prominent one in the project’s execution.  There aren’t very many other exceptions to reserving non-white roles for non-white actors that I would find agreeable, but I can think of one more. 

If a character of color in an adapted work from the past is so racially stereotyped as to be offensive to modern-day audiences — and it would be logical in the work for this character to be white — then rewriting such a dramatis persona as Caucasian and casting the role with a Caucasian actor would be acceptable to me, at least in theory.  However, it might then be suitable to relocate a non-offensive racial diversity elsewhere in the work.  

This brings us to Joe Wright’s recently released film Pan (2015), a prequel and origin story to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, first performed as a play in 1904.  While I haven’t seen Pan, a controversy has been brewing for the past year because the film cast Euro-American actress Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, a character usually portrayed as Native American.  This understandably provoked criticism from Native Americans and their supporters that the character should be played by an actress of authentically aboriginal American ancestry.  I more than appreciate this stance: a rare high-profile opportunity for a Native American performer was once again taken away. 

But — as is often asked in such circumstances — is that high-profile role worth playing?  After all, the pidgin-speaking damsel in distress that is Peter Pan’s Tiger Lily is dismaying (at the very least) to modern sensibilities and would clearly be regarded as an archaic stereotype.  In the original source material, Tiger Lily and her “tribe” are never explicitly identified as Native American, although most productions have portrayed them as such.  As an article for Smithsonian magazine says:

In the play, Peter refers to the tribe as “piccaninny warriors,” and in Peter & Wendy (Barrie's book-long adaptation of the story, published in 1911), they are introduced as the “Piccaninny tribe” — a blanket stand-in for “others” of all stripes, from Aboriginal populations in Australia to descendants of slaves in the United States. Barrie's tribespeople communicate in pidgin; the braves have lines like “Ugh, ugh, wah!”  Tiger Lily is slightly more loquacious; she'll say things like “Peter Pan save me, me his velly nice friend. Me no let pirates hurt him.” They call Peter “the great white father” — the name that Barrie had originally chosen for the entire play. A tom-tom pounded in victory is a key plot point.

So, an adaptation of Peter Pan would certainly want to rewrite this character, who is integral to the story, to be less of a stereotype.  But if you’re going to rewrite a racist caricature, why make her and the tribe Native American in the first place?  While Peter Pan is not something that I have ever over-analyzed, I have sometimes wondered why Tiger Lily and her people are in the story’s fictional realm at all.  Here’s how one Native American website puts it:

While casting a white actress as an Indian character [in Pan] is a familiar kind of disappointing, some folks who are trying to read the tea leaves are seeing something else — a revamped Tiger Lily who isn’t Native American at all. This would be a departure from J.M. Barrie’s source material, but maybe not such a radical one. Peter Pan’s Indians, after all, do not live [in North America]; they live in “Neverland,” and there is no real reason why they are Indians. And in J.M. Barrie's original play (but not the movie), they are said to be of the “Pickaninny Tribe,” which adds an anti-African American slur to the anti-Native “redskin” caricature. It’s a blurring that suggests Barrie didn't really care whether he was writing about Indians, or Africans, or African Indians or Indian Africans — he simply wanted a handy caricature and exotic other that might show up in the dreams of white English kids circa 1904.

I hear that Pan director Wright has crafted a character who is not a damsel in distress but a butt-kicking feminist role model.  Furthermore, I understand that Wright has cast both Tiger Lily’s tribe and the Lost Boys with a multi-racial ensemble, so performers of color aren’t being entirely snubbed. 

Given how egregiously racist the portrayals of Tiger Lily and her tribe have been from the get-go, I can certainly understand Wright’s going in the other direction and creating a character who, in and of herself, could not be accused of being a racial stereotype and could not be accused of promoting racism (with the arguable exception of extradiegetically erasing a prominent character of color by doing so).  There’s no real logic to the Indians being in the fictional realm of Neverland in the first place.  If the story were actually set in North America, I’d probably feel differently, but the setting is largely one drawn entirely from Barrie’s imagination, so why not?  This seems to be the reason why Pan reportedly does not make Tiger Lily and her people Native American.  While it makes Tiger Lily ostensibly white, it makes her people multi-racial. 

The musical ‘The Nightingale,’
based on Hans Christian Andersen’s
China-set story, was staged at the
La Jolla Playhouse in 
2012 with a
self-proclaimed “color-blind” cast.
Many will disagree with me, and I understand their perspectives.  For instance, some view compromised minority representation as preferable to no minority representation at all, so to them, casting the role of Tiger Lily with a white actress especially stings.  But given how stereotyped the role has been in the past, I equally understand Wright’s apparent desire to make a 180ยบ turn, race-wise.  (Some, no doubt, will say that even if Tiger Lily in Pan had been played by a Native American actress, critics would still have found fault with her portrayal.)  Others might see an inconsistency between my position here and my preference for seeing the China-set musical The Nightingale (2012) with an all-Asian cast; instead, as its publicity said, the musical was cast “color-blind” (in the words of one critic, “white men and women of color”) because its creators saw its Asian setting as more of a China as it existed in the 19th-century European imagination than the non-fictional China.  But at least China is an actual place inhabited by actual Chinese people, something that The Nightingale ought to have reflected.  Peter Pan’s Neverland, by contrast, is not a genuine geographical entity. 

If I were ever in charge of a production of Peter Pan (which I don’t plan to be anytime soon), I would have gone further in the other direction by making Tiger Lily and all her people a visibly European (Celtic?) tribe and made up for this erasure of diversity by casting the Lost Boys as multi-racial.  That way, there would be no accusations of racially stereotyping Tiger Lily and her people, while I would still maintain a racially pluralistic cast. 

Oh, well.  Those are my thoughts on the subject of the casting of Joe Wright’s Pan.  What are yours?  

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Horror Film to Skip: ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’

Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Frankenstein (left) and Robert De Niro as the Monster
in ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’

Last October, to help everyone get in the mood for the holiday, I wrote a Halloween-themed post about my favorite horror film, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961).  This year, I thought that I would write another about — all things considered — my least favorite horror film.  Although I’m sure that I could find other would-be chillers that are more wanting in subject matter and/or craftsmanship, the film that I would like to write about is, given the talent and resources lavished on it, perhaps the biggest missed opportunity in the history of cinema.  The name of this monstrosity more horrifying in execution than intention?  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), directed by Kenneth Branagh
 
Director-star Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Victor Frankenstein
Adapting Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic as a follow-up to Francis Ford Coppola’s very successful Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992 — which one critic dubbed the most expensive high-school play in history), Branagh’s Frankenstein boasts a large budget and a very talented cast, not the least of whom is Robert De Niro in the role of the Monster.  Since many adaptations of the Shelley novel show no fidelity to its period or setting (at least two productions transplanted the story to Britain), I was very pleased to see Branagh’s film fixed firmly in the late 18th century (the period of the Enlightenment) and Dr. Frankenstein’s status as an outsider by making him a Swiss national (Shelley’s novel was famously written in Switzerland) studying in nationalistic Ingolstadt, Germany.  For buffs of German literature, Friedrich Schiller even makes a cameo appearance (although the real Schiller was probably nowhere near Ingolstadt at the time). 

With sumptuous costumes evoking the late 18th century and a very accomplished cast, Branagh’s film had a lot going for it.  Unfortunately, he chooses to emphasize the melodramatic aspects of the novel with breakneck pacing, shovel-on-the-head dialogue, and a constantly swirling soundtrack that hardly ever lets up.  In fact, Branagh’s Frankenstein is almost wall-to-wall music, as though the filmmaker feared that any let-up in the orchestral score would put the audience to sleep.  (The first time I first saw this Frankenstein at the Writers’ Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, when the composer’s name, the otherwise distinguished Patrick Doyle, appeared on the screen, the audience broke out into jeers — the only time I’ve ever known that to happen to a composer.) 
 
Robert De Niro as the Monster
Actor-director Branagh himself plays Dr. Victor Frankenstein, which may have had something to do with his not being able to view the project from a more comprehensive distance.  De Niro’s Monster looks more like a badly scarred human rather than anything especially frightening, so we’re less understanding of the townspeople’s horrific reactions to him.  It would have been appreciated had there been some other element to his appearance (such as his flat head in the Boris Karloff movies for Universal Pictures) to make the Monster more … well … monstrous. 

Branagh’s Frankenstein rushes from one plot point to the next in an apparent effort to cram all of its material into the movie without running overtime.  There’s little sense of the film pausing long enough to allow the viewer (or even the characters) to absorb the proceedings.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of those rare films that might have actually been better had it been longer (and less melodramatic) and given more time for its narrative to unfold. 
 
Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth, Dr. Frankenstein’s betrothed
(apparently, someone got tired of the film’s bombastic dialogue)
And to top it all off, the script — by Steph Lady and The Shawshank Redemption’s Frank Darabont — wallops the viewer with spell-it-out-for-you dialogue that leaves no doubt about the characters’ actions and incitements.  Here, Victor Frankenstein is given a mother who dies in childbirth to spur his experiments to prolong life indefinitely.  One scene has Victor laying flowers on his mother’s grave, saying, “Oh, Mother, you should never have died.  No one need ever die.  I will stop this. I will stop this.  I promise” — lest we have any doubt what his driving force is.  The scene might as well have had a sign light up in the background saying “CHARACTER’S MOTIVATION.”     

To watch Branagh’s Frankenstein is also to wonder how such a richly pedigreed film got so much wrong.  Rather than playing up the melodrama, I wish that the movie had gone in the other direction and observed its goings-on with a Kubrickian sense of detail and understatement.  The scene of Victor at his mother’s grave needed no dialogue, and I think that the scene could have been more rewarding by allowing the viewers to put Victor’s (rather obvious) motivation together for themselves. 
 
John Cleese as Dr. Robert Waldman
The only real reason to watch Branagh’s Frankenstein — other than to luxuriate in the production values and wish they were expended on a better movie — is to witness Monty Python alum John Cleese in a rare dramatic turn, in this case in the role of Dr. Robert Waldman, the titular scientist’s mentor.  But even here, as good as it is to catch Cleese in anything, I would still like to have seen an important supporting part like Dr. Waldman go to Christopher Lee as a tribute to his role as the Monster in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), one of the first of Hammer Films’s horror series from the 1950s through ’70s. 

At the start, I called Branagh’s Frankenstein my least favorite horror film.  Where other misfires of the genre can sometimes make me laugh at their inept attempts to frighten the viewer or at least make me appreciate the movie as an artifact of its time, Branagh’s film only makes me sad.  As I watch such lavishly costumed characters spouting hyperbolic dialogue written by scribes who have proven their worth on other projects, I’m filled with a sense of sorrow for what might have been.