Since the Edison film short Frankenstein back in 1910, Mary Shelley’s masterpiece has been adapted for the big screen countless times (most recently I, Frankenstein in 2014). Every time, the question is the same: how will this film distinguish itself from the ever-growing plethora of Frankenstein movies? Victor Frankenstein, directed by Paul McGuigan, wisely approaches the story from a fresh angle, presenting the life of Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) through the eyes of his assistant Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), a character who doesn’t even exist in the original novel. While Victor’s and Igor’s characters are well developed, Radcliffe’s problematic voiceover, McAvoy’s shockingly inconsistent performance, and the film’s genre identity crisis make it unlikely to stand out from the crowd.
The story begins with Radcliffe’s voiceover: “You know this story: the mad genius, the crack of lightning, the unholy creation . . . . But the world remembers the monster, not the man. Sometimes the monster is the man.” Here the voiceover establishes that what makes this retelling different is its focus on Frankenstein the man (in case you didn’t infer that from the title) from the viewpoint of Igor. Only later in the movie do Radcliffe’s occasional interjections become a crutch. At one point, for instance, the voiceover informs us that Igor misses Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay), a trapeze artist he fancied while they were in the circus together. Showing, rather than telling, would have been so much more vivid.
Radcliffe’s acting, however, is quite good. He perfectly portrays Igor’s loyalty and indebtedness to Victor for curing his hunchback and valuing his scientific capabilities. At the same time, he shows Igor’s cognitive dissonance as he resolves to help Victor with projects that ultimately go against his own moral sense. It’s McAvoy’s acting that is surprisingly uneven. He pulls off some scenes splendidly, but in others his performance is overly intense. Some scenes even feature McAvoy’s spit flying from his mouth (glad this wasn’t in 3D). Say it, don’t spray it, McAvoy.
Victor Frankenstein doesn’t know what genre it hopes to fit into. It flirts with rom-com, horror, and drama, but masters none. Igor’s relationship with Lorelei mirrors a romantic comedy, complete with the hopeless guy who finally gets the girl he’s always fantasized about. But the speedy progression of their relationship, their lack of concern as to how they will provide for themselves, and Lorelei’s disinterest in ascending the social ladder make the romance feel a bit too modern for its Victorian setting. Lorelei’s scenes, when taken together, are a confused assortment of friendly, passionate, and near-parental, in moments when she advises Igor to be confident in himself and to stand up to Victor. The romance feels rushed and is completely superfluous to the story.
A small set of scenes lean in the opposite direction, bordering on horror. Igor and Frankenstein’s creations are neither friendly nor particularly pleasant to look at. Yet these horror scenes—like the film’s romantic moments—have very little to do with the rest of the movie. The point is Victor’s motivation and the consequences of creating life from death, not watching the creations wreak havoc. These horror scenes feel like clips from the numerous zombie trailers that ran before the film, rather than a part of Victor Frankenstein itself. Again we’re left wondering why these scenes were included at all.
As a whole, we’d call Victor Frankenstein a drama, since the film focuses on the dynamic between Igor and Victor, the growth of their friendship, and their shared scientific (and personal) enterprise. This facet of Victor Frankenstein, unlike its romantic and horrific sides, is well done. If you give the film a chance, you will likely enjoy—as we did—watching Igor grow from a curious but helpless hunchback into a confident scientist, and appreciate the depth of the relationship the two male leads develop. Igor and Victor gain trust in each other and an understanding of their different backgrounds and motivations. This alone makes them quite the dynamic duo to watch.
Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that the climax of the story feels rushed. Ultimately Victor’s creation dissatisfies him, suggesting perhaps that, although science can imitate life, creating sentience remains beyond our reach. It seems, for a moment, that Victor was wrong to “play God” and has learned his lesson. However, this message is almost immediately undermined by Victor’s speculation of one day trying again, this time to create a creature with a more functional brain. Failing to learn from his mistake, Victor’s character arc is as stunted as Igor’s hunched figure once was. The film’s message is left unclear, failing to deliver on its promise to show that the man is the monster. Victor Frankenstein feels like the draft of a movie rather than a finished product.
You know this story: the mad genius, the crack of lightning, the unholy creation. What you don’t know is that you just paid to see the unholy creation.