Six years ago, Guy Ritchie gave stuffy British detective Sherlock Holmes a thorough dusting off in his film, “Sherlock Holmes,” turning the private eye into a macho, brawling action hero. This swaggering steampunk treatment is now applied to another British literary-turned-pop icon in “Victor Frankenstein.” Here, the reclusive mad scientist is now a hunky medical student (James McAvoy), and even poor hunchback Igor gets a makeover, turning into Daniel Radcliffe. This injection of fresh blood is initially quite promising, with shades of camp and humor, but it ultimately ends up a bit too self-serious. It’s a shame, because it could have been quite fun.
McAvoy has one speed as the ambitious almost-doctor Frankenstein: full-tilt. He is grinning, frothing, raving, manic – usually all at once. The story is an origin of sorts, and one that affords lab assistant Igor more of the credit. Victor rescues Igor from the circus, where he’s been a brilliant but downtrodden clown his entire life. Victor spots his promise during a daring rescue, brings him home, fixes him up and installs him as his assistant right quick.
In their work, there are a whole lot of bloodstained aprons and electrified organs, and Igor is transfixed by the possibilities, until he gets a dose of the reality. During a medical school demonstration, Frankenstein’s grotesque zombie chimp attacks, leading Igor to question their motives. But it attracts a new benefactor, snooty Finnegan (Freddie Fox), and the quest for scientific glory is too much for Frankenstein to resist.
Intersecting with this main story, there’s a subplot about a crusading detective inspector (Andrew Scott) who suspects that Frankenstein’s up to no good, as well as an underdone romance between Igor and the circus trapeze star, Lorelai (Jessica Brown Findlay). These side diversions serve to make Igor the romantic lead and heart of the film, and put their work under even more time pressure, with Scotland Yard on their tail. Otherwise, they only detract from the heart of the story, which has to do with loss, trauma, ambition and questions about the nature of life.
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Radcliffe and McAvoy are marvelous together – the best scenes are just the two of them, working maniacally on their projects, Igor drawn in by Frankenstein’s enthusiasm, or Igor pleading with Frankenstein to question the results of his experimentation.
There are a few truly funny lines, and a reference or two to the classic comedy “Young Frankenstein,” but you wish that they had gone further in pushing the humor. The film shies away from going full-bore camp, and at the end, takes a hard left into existential moralizing and tedious destruction. If it weren’t for the wild-eyed McAvoy, these scenes would be completely bland.
“Victor Frankenstein” runs about 10 to 15 minutes too long, what with the wrapping up of love stories, detective tales and fitting in a convenient villain in the form of capitalistic exploitation. There’s an interesting exploration of the psychology at play in Frankenstein’s quest, even if that analysis is a bit shallow. It’s a valiant effort to reimagine the story to humanize Frankenstein and empower Igor, but it doesn’t achieve brilliance. The electric performances of Radcliffe and McAvoy keep it afloat, and without them, the film could have been dead on arrival.
Cast: James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe, Jessica Brown-Findlay, Andrew Scott, Freddie Fox
Director: Paul McGuigan
Rated PG-13 (for macabre images, violence and a sequence of destruction)