When I remembered that Igor was never a character in the original Frankenstein story, I began to expect less of Victor Frankenstein, which makes Igor its main character. When I discovered that this version’s Frankenstein lives in a steampunk London, my expectations lowered yet more. They would descend much lower still.
This is a shame, because Victor Frankenstein had a chance to become an engaging romp, even if it did not particularly follow Shelley’s novel. Igor, played by a sympathetic Daniel Radcliffe, begins as an abused circus sideshow without a name. Because he taught himself human anatomy, Igor gains the attention of Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy), who rescues Igor from the circus. Frankenstein transforms Igor from a freak into a man, removing his hunchback and recruiting him to work as a partner in his experiments. The shaky morality of these experiments begins to worry Igor. Frankenstein, meanwhile, turns into something of an abusive boyfriend figure, guilting Igor into continuing his assistance. As the two men work towards reanimating a man, they must run from Inspector Turpin, a policeman who inexplicably suspects Frankenstein of working an experiment centuries ahead of then-current medicine.
Sometimes I like to imagine how the ideas for certain movies came into existence. For this one, I picture a group of hipsters in a coffee shop who decide to make a revisionist prequel of the Frankenstein mythos starring all of their favorite British actors.
The schtick wears thin because director Paul McGuigan tries to stitch together two very different movies. One is a rollicking steampunk actioner, complete with CGI monsters and Young Frankenstein references. The cinematography reminds me of a splashy Victorian-era print, with shots of vibrant color and rooms filled with complicated contraptions. It also reminded me of a graphic novel: When he introduces himself to Igor, Frankenstein’s name flashes up on the screen. Whether this is an avant-garde way of introducing characters or lazy storytelling, I’m not sure.
The other movie McGuigan was trying to make is an Important Commentary on the Frankenstein story. One of the most successful scenes in the film is when Igor and Frankenstein create the blueprint for their man. They give the creature two sets of lungs and two hearts. “He is our man, so we can do what we like,” Igor says.
The blueprint becomes a labyrinth of lines, a thing that is less than human. As if to escape the horror of their plans, the men drink. Frankenstein, in a giggling frenzy, flattens the creature’s head just for the fun of it. The two men become drunk gods, creators who are incredibly inept and devoid of love for their creation. This is Shelley’s story at its most powerful—the horror of men trying to grasp power that does not belong to them.
However, the rest of the film’s Important Commentary is clumsily slathered on. Inspector Turpin, one of two voices of morality, repeats variations of “Life is a sacred creation” and “This is Satan’s work!” so much as to deaden any impact his words might have. Then also, Andrew Scott’s zombie-like policeman has less charisma than Inspector Javert from Les Miserables. The other voice of morality, Igor’s love interest and trapeze artist Lorelei, has a woefully underdeveloped subplot straight out of the pages of a gothic novel. By the end, the plot exploits the parallel between Frankenstein’s evil creation of the monster and his uplifting creation of the man Igor, practically stating this moral of the story.
The juxtaposition of these competing narratives makes Victor Frankenstein look like it’s trying too hard. It features all the flashy action sequences and CGI of a popcorn flick to entertain the masses; it throws in some philosophizing about life for Shelley-lovers who want a meaningful Frankenstein tale. As a result, both stories are cheapened.
I have yet to see a film version of Frankenstein that completely reflects the Romanticism and horror of the original novel. Plenty focus on the monster as a violent Other. Many, like Victor Frankenstein, focus on the tortured creator so much that they ignore the equally compelling story of Shelley’s creature. As I left the theater, I asked one of my friends what she thought of the movie. She summed it up well: “It’s a smart movie for dumb people.”