There is no denying the preposterous energy of Victor Frankenstein. There’s also no denying that the latest iteration of Mary Shelley’s classic is pretty terrible. Telling Frankenstein’s story through Igor’s eyes is an interesting notion, but director Paul McGuigan gets lost somewhere between these two tortured souls. That same indecisiveness plagues the entire film, which can’t decide if it wants to be an action-comedy or a morose reflection of the dreary source material. The result is a monster that barely gets off the slab.
Right out of the gate, Victor Frankenstein can’t figure out what it is. A hunchback in a flea-bitten circus is kicked and beaten for the amusement of bored onlookers. He studies medical journals and hones his scientific knowledge because that’s what circus hunchbacks do in their spare time, apparently. It has all the hallmarks of a tragedy, albeit a ridiculous one, and hints that the filmmakers might have a different vision for this very familiar story.
One night, a trapeze artist named Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay) plummets to the show-ring floor and the hunchback springs… er… lurches into action. Borrowing an old pocket watch from a curious circus patron, he resets Lorelei’s collarbone and saves her miserable life. The curious patron is Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) and the hunchback is Igor (Daniel Radcliffe).
Frankenstein recognizes genius in Igor’s mildly-impressive improvisation and decides to set him free. A chase ensues and we quickly discover this isn’t your grandfather’s Frankenstein; this Frankenstein can parkour! Fires are set, knives are thrown, and carnies are murdered, with Igor and Frankenstein absconding to a creepy mansion that looks like a rejected design from Willy Wonka. They begin work on the doctor’s top-secret project while trying to evade the watchful eye of a moralizing detective named Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott) and a painfully-British benefactor named Finnegan (Freddie Fox).
This brief description doesn’t even account for the absurd love affair between Igor and Lorelei, Frankenstein’s dark past and domineering father, a murder investigation, lots of dancing, lightning-fu, the real Igor, and a homunculus named Gordon. There’s a lot of stuff going on here and very little of it is interesting.
All this nonsense might have made for a good time, but screenwriter Max Landis and director Paul McGuigan can’t decide where their allegiances lie. When the story focuses on Igor, things are decidedly fluffy, with plenty of footsie for Lorelei and navel-gazing about Frankenstein’s increased instability. Then things shift to Frankenstein’s story and we’re back in Shelley’s world, examining the familiar themes about life, death, and the soul. Sure, there are mild chuckles and subtle nods to previous incarnations of the Shelley adaptation (McAvoy bristles at Gene Wilder’s preferred pronunciation of the family name from Young Frankenstein), but this is mostly a dreary affair punctuated by brief bursts of cartoon violence. It’s an odd combination that might work for Sherlock Holmes, but is totally baffling for Frankenstein.
The tone isn’t the only thing shifting in Victor Frankenstein. It’s hard to tell from one minute to the next how Igor feels about the doctor’s work, as he oscillates wildly between denial and defiance. There’s no way to anticipate or even care about Igor’s decisions because he’s such a woefully undefined character; a slight problem given his standing as the main protagonist.
The villain of the piece also shifts, with Finnegan serving (sort of) as the foil for Igor’s storyline and the brilliant but whacked-out Inspector Turpin trying to stymie Frankenstein’s plans. Much like a guilty conscience, the magical Inspector Turpin appears when you least expect him. He can traverse locked barricades and materialize in the desolate wilderness at will. For his part, Finnegan is just your standard fop. Everyone knows that he’s a bastard, but the main characters must remain oblivious to keep the plot moving forward. Indeed, a movie with this much pointless plot requires a whole truck-load of obliviousness.
The movie’s few positives come from its production design and performances. From a technical standpoint, Victor Frankenstein looks fantastic. Cinematography, set and costume design, and art direction are all stellar. McAvoy gives us a more uncouth Frankenstein than we’ve seen, as he channels his best version of Robert Downey Jr. He’s having a great time chewing the scenery and serves as a welcome contrast to the mopey Radcliffe. Andrew Scott also has fun playing the increasingly-unhinged inspector, who finds it impossible to keep his fundamentalist beliefs buried despite his cold, analytical exterior.
Ultimately, Victor Frankenstein had an original angle on this familiar monster story, but couldn’t bring it to life. It’s hard to say where this disconnect occurs between the material’s inherently-dark nature and this movie’s action-comedy flourishes; at the development stage or after panicky producers saw a final project that was too much of a downer. Whatever the cause, these filmmakers lost track of their story somewhere along the way.
“But what about the monster?” you ask. Exactly.