Kenneth Branagh Picks Up the Pieces in Mary Shelley's Monster Classic

Buffalo News, November 5 1994
by Barry Koltnow

Director Kenneth Branagh knows that some people who watch his film "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," which opened Friday, will be shocked by what he has done to the classic Gothic horror tale of a mad scientist and the creature he brings to life.

These people inevitably will wonder about the absence of Igor, the demented assistant, and the inclusion of Victor Frankenstein's love interest, Elizabeth. They'll ask why the creature speaks so eloquently -- or why he speaks at all -- and why the story starts out in the Arctic, of all places.

Branagh expects those reactions, because those are exactly the same reactions he had two years ago when he read Shelley's novel, written in 1818, in preparation for making the film.

"Right there on Page 1, I said, 'What the heck are we doing in the Arctic?' and the questions never stopped," he said. "We have all grown so accustomed to all those screen versions of 'Frankenstein' that we have forgotten that Mary Shelley had something entirely different in mind.

"People expect to see the story of the madman and his Neanderthal creation, and I thought there was no reason to go over the same ground. The same people who will complain about the changes we've made are the ones who complain that Hollywood follows a formula and has stopped being original.

"Well, we are indeed a different version, and I want people to think of the word 'original' when they think of 'different.' We give them plenty of dark and horrific moments, but we go beyond that as well.

"That's because 'Frankenstein' goes beyond other horror stories. There are so many layers to this story, layers about family and rejection and the cruelty of mankind toward anyone who looks different. It's a much richer story than 'Dracula,' and I think it touches us much deeper than 'Dracula.' "

In this version, Branagh stars as the young medical student who yearns to prove that life can be created in a laboratory. Robert De Niro is the hideous creature, and Helena Bonham Carter plays Elizabeth, Victor's adopted sister and great love of his life.

"Elizabeth is only talked about in the book, and I felt that had to be changed," the director said. "It seemed ridiculous that she would not question what he was up to, and I felt we had to have her voice in our story.

"Considering how times have changed in attitudes toward women's roles in films, it would not seem right to have her in the story just as a love interest. Mary Shelley was a strong woman who I'm sure questioned Percy Shelley, and I'm convinced she intended Elizabeth to be a strong character."

Obviously, Branagh, 33, is preparing himself for the inevitable comparisons, but he's not a man who shies from critics. After all, this is the man who in 1989 had the audacity to remake "Henry V," when any student of cinema could tell you that Laurence Olivier made the definitive "Henry V" in 1945.

Branagh was nominated for acting and directing Oscars for his film.

"Yes, yes, I've been there before," he said with a sigh of resignation. "But I believe the classics belong to everyone."

After the brash 28-year-old filmmaker earned Hollywood kudos with "Henry V," he returned to the screen as all-American private eye Mike Church in the mystery-thriller "Dead Again." As in "Henry V," he directed and co-starred with his wife, Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson.

He next directed the not-so-well-received "Peter's Friends" and decided to make his fourth directorial effort a classic, Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing."

Branagh (it rhymes with "Vanna"), a native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, returned to the London stage and was playing Hamlet when he was approached to direct "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." It was too inviting to pass up, he said.

"It didn't take a rocket scientist to see the connection between what Mary Shelley was talking about and what was going on in our lives today," Branagh said.

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