The problem with Mary Shelley's 1818 horror classic Frankenstein has always been protagonist Victor Frankenstein. The novel's plot requires him to be embarrassingly mercurial, completely lacking in empathy, and prone to lengthy periods of fevered hysteria, so he can check out of the story for weeks whenever Shelley needs time to pass. Above all, he's brilliant enough to create intelligent life from dead tissue, but still too dim to parse the simple threat "I shall be with you on your wedding night." He's meant to be a hubristic, tortured soul, but he's more of an irresponsible narcissist. It's no wonder that to most people, "Frankenstein" still means the monster rather than the creator. Victor Frankenstein has always been less memorable — and in the original book and many of its screen adaptations, less sympathetic — than his experimental subject.
Paul McGuigan's film Victor Frankenstein — his first feature-directing job since 2009's underrated fugitive-superheroes movie Push — openly sets out to fix that problem. Part of the long string of re-envisioned classics kicked off by Wicked's massive Broadway success, and re-energized by Disney "brand deposit" movies like Maleficent and the awful-but-profitable 2015 Cinderella, Victor Frankenstein takes a fresh look at Mr. Monster-Builder and his motives, through the eyes of his admiring partner Igor.
This isn't just winking, it's full-body mugging
The film opens in a gothic circus in what could be the 18th century setting of the original novel, or could just as easily be Steampunk Victorian London. Daniel Radcliffe, still wearing the wounded determination that defined him as Harry Potter, plays a nameless hunchback who was apparently sold to the circus, where he's subjected to constant outsized physical and emotional abuse. But he's also the circus doctor, having taught himself medicine, anatomy, and richly detailed life drawing from books. (The film never addresses where he came from, or how a hectored, traumatized slave got medical engravings and learned to read. Maybe that's meant as homage to Shelley's story, where Frankenstein's monster also becomes a sensitive aesthete, largely by eavesdropping on a child's reading lessons. It's harder to explain why the circus folk are so blasé about beating and caging their only medical resource.)
After a freak accident, the hunchback impresses Victor (James McAvoy) with his medical resourcefulness in saving the life of fallen aerialist Lorelei (Downton Abbey's Jessica Brown Findlay). Victor springs the hunchback from captivity, fixes his physical deformities, gives him clothing and money and respect, and encourages him to pass as Igor, Victor's absentee roommate. The newly named Igor is so overcome with gratitude, he doesn't let it bother him that working with Victor mostly involves cramming electrodes into animal organs to make them twitch. But Victor's experiments do bother Scotland Yard Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott), a man with Sherlock Holmes' intellect (appropriate, given Scott's role as Moriarty on the BBC's Sherlock) and a Luddite's distrust of technology. Turpin quickly becomes Victor's Javert, determined to run him down no matter what.
Victor Frankenstein isn't nearly as campy as 2013's enjoyably ridiculous I, Frankenstein, but McGuigan is certainly aware how overwrought his material is, and he seems to have encouraged Radcliffe and McAvoy to play their characters as broadly as possible. Viewers could make a gross but effective drinking game just based on every time someone shouts so violently that spittle flies from his mouth. This is a movie of grandstanding speeches and completely unsubtle nudges. In the film's opening, after Victor introduces himself to Igor, McAvoy flashes a winning freeze-framed smile, while McGuigan flashes the movie's title across the screen. This isn't just winking at the audience, it's full-body mugging at it.
At its heartiest, Victor Frankenstein openly recalls the frantic pace and janky editing of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies. It even keeps Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law's character dynamic in those films — Victor is the arrogant Holmes, an expansive genius with no social graces, and Igor is the put-upon Watson trailing in his wake, making affectionate excuses for his behavior. To the degree this film has a heart (that isn't full of electrodes and laid out on a slab), it comes from the way Radcliffe and McAvoy sell their characters' bond. Igor was rejected by the world and Victor was rejected by his father (played by Game Of Thrones' Charles Dance, because who else plays a cold patrician elder these days?), so the two share a fellow-feeling as outcasts, and just having a loyal friend emboldens them both.
It's not the only relationship that works surprisingly well: Victor and Turpin play out a wildly over-the-top rendition of the age-old battle between science and faith, albeit one in which both beliefs are equally narrow and poisonous. In Turpin's worldview, everything he doesn't like or understand is blasphemy. Victor's defense of discovery and the scientific method might play better if he wasn't fighting for the right to turn piles of rotting meat into hideous, lurching monsters. It's possible these two nutcases deserve each other. Certainly the audience deserves them: McAvoy and Scott both have plenty of experience playing intense monomaniacs, and their slavering scenery-devouring contest is one of the film's biggest strengths.
Like so many modern re-imaginings, the film doesn't have a clear reason to exist
But too often, Victor Frankenstein is neither campy nor consequential. Lorelei, the film's only named female character, is essentially a fancy housepet, and her bland romance with Igor feels like a late, halfhearted studio addition, meant to head off viewers who might otherwise suspect Igor and Victor's fervid, needy bromance is carnal as well as intellectual. (McGuigan and screenwriter Max Landis miss a cheesy opportunity to write a pregnancy into the last act, as a counterpoint to Victor's doomed, hubristic attempts to create life.) A rich, foppish villain (Freddie Fox) who bankrolls Victor's experiments also feels like a half-integrated device to move the story along. And the interminable final act, an overextended fight scene full of explosions, isn't nearly as much fun as watching Victor and Turpin snarl their credos at each other.
Amid its forced madness, Victor Frankenstein does help humanize its title character slightly — it even makes a little more sense of the key moment, so difficult to accept in the book, when Victor sees the culmination of years of work and instantly, utterly rejects it. But as with so many modern re-imaginings, the film doesn't have a clear reason to exist. It has a wide range of elements: slapstick, gothic horror, romance, meta in-jokes, action, and fiery spectacle. But it stitches them all together into a loose, shambling creation that feels like it was never entirely meant to live. Maybe there's a metaphor in there somewhere.