By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
Scottish filmmaker Paul McGuigan directed the pilot episode of the BBC’s witty and hyper-kinetic “Sherlock,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, so it’s no surprise that his new big screen production “Victor Frankenstein” recalls that earlier effort in both style and tone.
Presumably based on Mary Shelley’s oft-adapted work of horror (although there is nothing in the credits mentioning the 19th century author), the film begins with an acknowledgement that the audience knows the story, but what they remember is the monster, and not so much the man who created it.
James McAvoy plays the title character with so much energy that you’d think McGuigan had wired him up, monster-style, and gave him a jolt of lightning before every scene. One minute he’s twitchy and volatile, the next he’s charming and heroic. Daniel Radcliffe, of “Harry Potter” fame, plays Frankenstein’s loyal Igor, but in this version he’s smart, not simpleminded, and more of a colleague than an assistant to Victor. Igor’s given a backstory as a much-abused hunchback circus clown, and serves as the film’s narrator.
Frankenstein, a brilliant but decidedly unethical medical student, meets his helper at a circus, when they come to the rescue of a young trapeze artist who has fallen during a performance. Observing the lad’s unexpected gift for on-the-spot medical treatment, Victor rescues him from his cruel keepers. In the ensuing chase, one of the other circus performers is killed, so the police are called in. Leading the investigation is Inspector Turpin, a pious lawman from Scotland Yard. Played by Andrew Scott, best known for his role as the malevolent Moriarty in “Sherlock,” he is the faith-driven counterpoint to Victor, a man of science.
Frankenstein brings the nameless young man home, performs a squirm-inducing surgery on his misdiagnosed back ailment and rechristens him Igor, the same name as an AWOL flat mate. With the help of a back brace, Igor is perambulating around London in no time. He visits the Royal College of Medicine, where bright student Frankenstein attempts to reanimate a creature comprised of several different animal parts. The lofty experiment ends in failure. Igor also reconnects with the now recovered trapeze artist, who has moved up socially in the world thanks to a wealthy sponsor. Lorelei (“Downton Abbey’s” Jessica Brown Findlay) cautions Igor that he should be careful helping Frankenstein with his experiments.
With Turpin hot on his tail, Frankenstein escapes the cavernous former soap factory where he has set up his home lab for Scotland. There, thanks to the financial support of a wealthy classmate, he is free to build his ultimate monster, using electricity harnessed from a lightning storm. Hoping to stop their friend from conducting his unnatural and dangerous experiment and save him from Turpin’s arrest, Igor and Lorelei head toward the northern castle. That’s where the action-packed finale and the long-awaited monster appear.
Fans of TV’s “Sherlock,” not to mention Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” big screen updates will appreciate the style of “Victor Frankenstein.” Quick cuts, frequent use of slo-mo and swooping overhead shots and graphics laid on top of filmed images give a modern edge to the classic tale. There’s even a nod to “Young Frankenstein,” when Lorelei meets the title character, mispronounces his name and McAvoy corrects her.
The script and story by Max Landis, who wrote 2012’s “Chronicle,” is a novel take on the story but is wildly uneven. At times, it plays as a comedy, and at other points it’s serious and solemn.
Nevertheless, “Victor Frankenstein” is beautiful and moves quickly from scene to scene. Grim and gray 19th century London is brought to life by cinematographer Fabian Wagner, who credits include episodes of “Sherlock” and “Game of Thrones.” Eva Stewart’s production design, particularly of Frankenstein’s elaborate basement laboratory and later his roofless castle workshop is stunning. Jany Temime’s costumes, particularly a red party gown worn by Findlay, are gorgeous.
When he finally shows up, the monster is worth the wait. Called Prometheus after the mythic character who tried to steal fire from the gods, which Victor, in his way, is attempting to do by playing God. The final version of the character is embodied by 6-foot-10-inch actor Guillaume Delaunay, who donned a full prosthetic suit designed by Rob Mayor of Millennium FX. The monster resembles a flesh-colored cross between Hellboy and the Hulk.
Though the film has a solid, satisfying ending, like most fantastic films today, it leaves the door open for a sequel. Ideally, the filmmakers will have a better grasp on the tone by then.