From Shakespeare to Shelley

Irish Times, October 29 1994
by Hugh Linehan

This year is likely to be remembered as the year of the monster movie. It's in the nature of the film business that nothing ever comes singly, but the simultaneous reworking of all the great Hollywood horror archetypes seems more than mere plagiaristic "coincidence". Already this year we've seen Mike Nichols's Wolf while Neil Jordan's Interview with the Vampire and Stephen Frears's Mary Reilly (based on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) are soon to grace our screens.

Ahead of these comes Kenneth Branagh's version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which receives a worldwide release on November 4th, with Branagh himself both directing and taking the title role. When we met in London last month he was in the final stages of post production. Why the sudden fashion for romantic horror?

"It's a popular genre in which we can talk about big issues of birth and death and life and the meaning of all of those things in a way which would seem pretentious or risible in some contemporary movies," says Branagh. Or perhaps directors have been frightened of talking about such big things."

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is Kenneth Branagh's first major Hollywood movie, shot on a series of vast sets at Shepperton Studios on a budget of $ 45 million, and starring Robert De Niro as the Creature. More faithful to Mary Shelley's original novel than any earlier version, it follows Francis Ford Coppola's example, with Bram Stoker's Dracula of putting the author's name above the title. Coppola was also a producer on Frankenstein, but Branagh is keen to establish a distance between the two films.

"Frankenstein has more resonance as an idea than Dracula, which Francis used to focus on a love affair across time and to celebrate all kinds of cinematic techniques, so there was something very exotic about it. Ours is a different kind of Gothic world. It goes for scale rather than style. It's more of an epic involving nature. It's a horror film no question about that, but we try to get in all the stuff about birth and life and death and abandoned children and the role of an innocent in a world which hates him because he's disfigured it's a bigger, richer tale than the vampire story."

Like Jim Sheridan, Kenneth Branagh came to movies from a background in theatre. Has that informed his approach to directing films? "Well, I always rehearse in advance of shooting, primarily to create an atmosphere of trust and a shared vocabulary, so that everybody knows where you're coming from. I have a strong regard for the mechanics of storytelling. I do have a theatre affected approach to narrative in that I like things to have a beginning, a middle and an end some sense of a journey completed and I'm not frightened of words.

This is his fifth film, and the most technically complex, with enormous set pieces and some extravagant special effects, so does he find himself becoming more assured in his handling of the technical possibilities of the form? "This picture's been very helpful for that. I'm more comfortable and confident walking on to a set now and knowing exactly what to ask for, and I'm always curious about what you can do.

"I admire the way in which Woody Allen regularly experiments, and I like the fast moving styles of Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone. The opening sequence of In the Name of the Father was a tour de force from that point of view. More and more the experience of going to the cinema ought to be distinct and, if you want to be able to interest people in words or ideas, you need to provide a visceral experience to give them energy."

THE irony of Frankenstein, of course, is that usually nobody remembers very much about the title character. The potency of versions such as James Whale's 1931 classic lies in the lonely, abused, tragic figure of the Creature, so much so that many cinemagoers think the Creature is Frankenstein. Branagh makes a valiant attempt to broaden the focus of the story.

"It's a tragedy that spreads through this whole family. The Frankenstein family is portrayed differently from previous versions, as a place of light and warmth and generosity, something which it might be foolish to risk. But risk it he does, fuel led by the death of his mother and the seemingly arbitrary disease *and death around him. This is a good man annoyed with an unfeeling God and we go with him, I think. When he screws up, we plug straight into the tragedy of the thing that he creates and abandons, and the story of all the others affected. It's a grand tragedy, on a Greek or Shakespearean scale, an ensemble piece.

"We did a lot of a work on the Shelleys themselves, their crazed, incestuous rather brilliant, extraordinary lives. The sort of incredible passion which existed between those people we try to give to the relationship between Victor and Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), who, in the book, is rendered as a sort of idealised object of her time. It's a challenging thing, in that Elizabeth is no longer downstairs going 'What's in that funny old lab, honey?' We also had, to see what Victor Frankenstein is risking.

Despite all this, the finished film's strengths and weaknesses are remarkably similar to earlier versions. Branagh's attempts to give greater resonance to the character of Victor Frankenstein are overshadowed by De Niro's Creature, and the romance between Victor and Elizabeth seems as superfluous as ever to the main story. It would seem that, no matter how hard you try, there is only one real relationship in Frankenstein.

"There is a father/son relationship, as there is in previous versions, but because the Creature gets to speak, and speak as eloquently as he does in the book, he really nails Victor Frankenstein on what he'd done. It does make the Creature a figure of tremendous sympathy."

Robert De Niro is famously able to physically transform himself for the requirements of a given role, but this is the first time he has submitted himself to major prosthetic makeup to alter his appearance.

"I think he was glad to do it, as part of his interest in being different from part to part and stretching himself. He didn't want to be confined by some kind of 'big suit, and it took us about nine months to get the makeup right, so that he could continue to act as simply and beautifully as he's capable of. The triumph of the makeup is that you don't really notice it. It's certainly not Boris Karloff. I thought Karloff was wonderful, especially in the first picture; it was a beautiful piece of acting, but quite different. I think De Niro will make his own significant mark on the role.

"I've been surprised by the capacity of this story to take the degree of seriousness we've applied to it. It kept yielding more and more emotional juice. Our newspapers are full of the advances in genetic science, we're just getting closer and closer. I believe somewhere behind closed doors people are now actually too close. We don't even have to suggest that in this film. It is already there in the imaginations of the audience today. It appeals to a fear. Mary Shelley said 'I busied myself to think of a story which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature. That's just as potent now."

After several years of depression, British film studios are buzzing again, fuelled by the current American taste for costume drama. "I hope these big pictures succeed financially, to encourage people to say that largethemed films which combine the potential for rip shit and bust action with something of substance are worth pursuing, that mainstream pictures can have some kind of meat in them, without being middleweight or middlebrow. I certainly can't conceive of Interview With the Vampire not being original and unique in Neil Jordan's hands. The larger mainstream action pictures from Hollywood over the last few years have been depressingly void of anything beyond the next explosion. Anything that changed that would be a great help."

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