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Judy Cox


Mary’s monster

(November 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Dir: Kenneth Branagh

Forget the Hammer House of Horror – this version of Frankenstein returns to the spirit of Mary Shelley’s novel. It is a beautifully made film, full of blood and guts special effects which are quite exciting, like the moment when the monster is ‘born’. The acting and dialogue are hammy and over the top but, despite all this, Branagh’s interpretation of Frankenstein has real problems.

The hero of the film is none other than Kenneth Branagh, playing the idealistic and obsessive Frankenstein. The film shows how the death of his beloved mother in childbirth affected him. Mary Shelley’s own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died giving birth to her, and her own children were stillborn or died young. This shaped how she saw the horrors of creating life and the connections between birth and death.

The young Frankenstein rages against the necessity of death, of the loss of loved ones, and throws himself into the search for eternal life. He challenges the authorities who stifle scientific discoveries, but he becomes a man obsessed, a man who believes that he can single-handedly conquer nature and ‘God’.

The original novel was written at the time of the Industrial Revolution, when the question of how far people could go in controlling nature was widely debated.

Branagh’s film echoes this interpretation. The story is partly reduced to a lesson in not meddling with nature.

In this film the most important relationship is the love story between Frankenstein and Elizabeth. Their relationship takes centre stage at the expense of the relationship which was central to the novel – that between Frankenstein and the monster. This is a problem because the monster, played by Robert De Niro, is a lot more interesting than the love affair (and Robert De Niro is a lot more interesting than Kenneth Branagh).

The monster represents the poor and oppressed, the working class then being drawn into cities, being brutalised by modern industry. He is not created evil, as he was in the 1930s versions of the novel where the monster is given a criminal brain. He is made evil by the cruel way he is treated. This is the heart of Mary Shelley’s novel – if the oppressed are treated badly they will rebel, burn, loot and murder so society had better be nicer to them.

Mary’s monster could read Paradise Lost or could be driven to murdering children. This aspect is not really explored in the film. Robert De Niro doesn’t get a chance to really develop the monster’s role in the film, although he does manage to inject some real pathos. Also, every time the ‘mob’ appear they are invariably bloodthirsty idiots, which is a bit irritating.

This is an interesting try at going back to the novel, and has its exciting moments. But Branagh has interpreted the story as more of a love story than a story about rebellion and oppression. This means it ends up a bit predictable and limited, and not half as exciting as it could have been.

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