ROMANTIC WITH A BIG AND A SMALL R, Kenneth Branagh's hyperventilating version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein strains for grand theatrical effects at every turn. The camera, and the actors, are always in a mad dash from here to there. If the lovers, Victor Frankenstein (Branagh) and his future bride, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), settle down for a moment, the airborne lens will swift around them like a hornet contemplating a sting. You can see what Branagh is after in this umpteenth retelling of Shelley's Gothic classic: he wants to restore the passionate emotional scale of the early 19th century to a tale that most people remember as a 1930s horror flick. But with his other eye firmly on the marketplace, he also wants to wow the MTV generation. What we get is Romanticism for short attention spans; a lavishly decorated horror movie with excellent elocution. His strategy undermines itself-there's a lot of sound and fury, but all the grand passions are indicated rather than felt. Watching the movie work itself into an operatic frenzy, one remains curiously detached: the grand gestures are there, but where's the music?
Branagh's two Shakespeare films have been triumphs-meaty, moving and fun. Bard-less, the director flounders. His "Frankenstein" gives off the same hollow echo that "Dead Again" did, the same mixture of stylistic flair and insincerity. We should be simultaneously terrified and moved by the figure of the monster (Robert De Niro), who turns to destruction only after he's been rejected by his creator and society. But while De Niro cuts a striking figure with his stitched face and Nosferatu-style coat, his tragedy remains rhetorical. (Bizarrely, the. movie omits the crucial moment when he first sees his own reflection.) But there is one near-great scene: when the monster, naked as a newborn, first escapes his metallic womb, he and his appalled creator grapple in the slime of the laboratory in a struggle for survival. It's a memorably horrific image of parricidal rejection.
The title implies, like "Bram Stoker's Dracula," that this will be a faithful adaptation. While it's certainly closer to Shelley than the Karloff version is, there are plenty of Grand Guignol embellishments--screenwriters Steph Lady and Frank Darabont add an abbreviated "Bride of Frankenstein" variation in which Victor decides to bring his own slaughtered wife back to life. It has a certain ghoulish excitement, but by this point the storytelling has become almost incoherent (a number of crucial scenes appear to have been cut) and Branagh's performance as the tragic scientist has come to resemble the Master Thespian on "Saturday Night Live." For a much more provocative, original retelling, someone should resurrect the 1973 TV movie "Frankenstein: The True Story," written by Christopher Isherwood. In that version, the monster comes out perfect, beautiful-and then, to his enamored creator's horror, slowly begins to rot.