Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Paul McGuigan
Writer: Max Landis
Producer: John Davis
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott, Freddie Fox, Charles Dance, Daniel Mays, Callum Turner, Bronson Webb
The story of Victor Frankenstein’s mad desire to create life is seen from the side of his laboratory assistant Igor.
If you were to visualize the usual onscreen importance of Igor, Victor Frankenstein, and the monster as a seesaw board, Igor would be on the ground, Victor would be at the fulcrum, and the monster would rise as high as (in)humanly possible. “Victor Frankenstein” teeters that totter towards the opposite slant by demoting Frankenstein’s creation to bit player while spotlighting an intelligent Igor as the unlikely star in this unusual version of Mary Shelley’s tale.
Igor lives as a clown in Barnaby’s traveling circus. It’s important to the script that Igor has a tragic background as an abused jester in search of identity, but it also needs him to be medically competent for research science. So when he isn’t being kicked in his hunchback by fellow freak show harlequins, Igor doubles as the troupe’s resident doctor. Best to look the other way on how his physician/Punchinello combination works out so conveniently.
Igor’s from-afar adoration of trapeze artist Lorelei turns to hands-on horror when the entrancing acrobat suffers a frightful fall mid-performance. Victor Frankenstein, looking for spare parts from the animal pens, leaps forward from the O-mouthed onlookers. Fate then forms the first link in their master-assistant bond as he and Igor work together to save the day.
Having recently lost his previous partner under suspicious circumstances, Victor daringly rescues Igor from his carnival captors, straightens his back, and makes the man an essential part of a plan to discover the secret of creation. As Victor’s obsession with defeating death grows, so does the conflict in Igor’s conscience. Victor has shaped him into a new man, but how far will Igor go in aiding Frankenstein’s dangerous desire to build a man of his own?
“Frankenstein” as a title has historically referred to the man and not the monster, although Igor argues perhaps Victor is both. The actual creation and eventual appearance of Frankenstein’s modern Prometheus is an almost perfunctory plot point in this particular retelling. Adding his first name to the title is one more act of confirmation that even though Igor provides the eyes, Victor Frankenstein is the soul of this story. That makes this mostly James McAvoy’s movie.
McAvoy channels a near-perfect Robert Downey Jr.-like performance to make Victor simultaneously charming, chaffing, egotistical, and endearing. McAvoy’s Victor is always the smartest as well as the craziest person in any given room, and he is well aware of both facts.
His is a complicated character constantly ping-ponging between wildly manic and then mildly muttering under his breath. What’s terrific about this take is that like Downey, McAvoy knows which words in his overwrought dialogue are essential for enunciation, and which are opportunities for breezing through breathless playfulness. That style has long enabled Downey to make mediocre material more entertaining. McAvoy comes close to engaging on a similar level, though a screenplay slowing often to explain its science keeps his personality from consistently burning at high temperature.
Further dousing the sizzle of James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe’s collective chemistry is a haranguing police procedural B-story and an undercooked romance for Igor. Andrew Scott as Inspector Turpin, investigating Victor and Igor for murdering a man during their circus escape, is too dry for a formidable foil. Turpin is then partnered with a practically mute constable whose sole purpose is keeping the inspector from looking like he is talking to himself via one-sided dialogue.
With the monster MIA until act three, forcefully fitting the detective angle is intended to have some sort of danger nipping at Victor and Igor’s boots. Except the arc is so far behind where Victor and Igor are moving that it is an uninteresting distraction halting the main story’s momentum.
“Victor Frankenstein” has multiple subplots involving Turpin’s religious motivation, Igor’s limp love affair with Lorelei, Victor’s disapproving father (Charles Dance in a brief one and done scene), and a rival scheming to steal Victor’s research. All of these threads unspool in inconsequential directions, and none of them are as compelling as the two chief characters.
Visually, “Victor Frankenstein” is a good-looking film. Too good. Combining heaps of period props and CGI spectacle, the movie captures some of the grandeur of towering architecture and crackling coils that gave “Frankenstein” 1931 its memorable look. But excessive production design spits up enough scenery to fill eight movies.
Busy backgrounds of fireworks-filled skies and crowded carnival midways. Bustling laboratories of bursting electricity and clanking contraptions. Graphic overlays identifying anatomy in slow-motion. One needs three sets of eyes to see everything on the screen. The everywhere flair goes past immersive fantasy and becomes unrealistic clutter. “Victor Frankenstein” is an illustrative case of when everything swims in overcompensating style, spectacle ceases to impress.
The obvious jest is to comment that “Victor Frankenstein” mimics construction of the titular man’s infamous creation: an imposing sight with star-power strength to knock down a wall, but lumbering off balance from mismatched limbs and an underdeveloped brain. Ten minutes shy of two hours is a long time for uneven characters to arrive at unsatisfactory resolutions in underwhelming subplots.
Once again comparable to the creature, forgiving the imperfect manner in which it is stitched together, there is a sheer force of determined will exploding inside. Radcliffe and McAvoy’s insistence on being better than the rest of the movie makes their commitment worth the watch. Even if “Victor Frankenstein” did not have that, it justifies its existence among a mire of indistinguishably mediocre Frankenstein movies simply by offering unique perspective on familiar content.
Review Score: 65