What is it about Mary Shelley’s classic tale of a man who creates a monster that fascinates people so much?
Amongst all of the famous “monsters,” perhaps Dracula is the most famous, and certainly vampires are all the rage at the moment. Thanks, Stephenie Meyer. Wolfman too has experienced a recent resurgence. Thanks, Meyer and Benicio Del Toro. But historically, Frankenstein, currently receiving a visually and emotionally stunning adaptation at the Angelika Film Center as a part of Britain’s National Theatre Live series, has received 16 film adaptations (at least) since 1910 when Thomas Edison made the very first movie adaptation of Shelley’s book.
Directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) and starring Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting, Eli Stone) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Atonement, The Other Boleyn Girl), who each take turns playing Victor and the Creature, this iteration of Frankenstein is arguably the most effective telling of “the modern Prometheus” since the book.
Originally performed at Britain’s National Theatre and re-broadcast for theater audiences around the world, the performance referenced in this review features Cumberbatch as the Creature and Miller as Victor. To see the actors in the opposite roles, this series will be played again in April with Miller as the Creature and Cumberbatch as Victor. And upon seeing this version, you’ll likely want to see how these two men would perform in the other role as well.
The story of Frankenstein is an oft-perverted one. The classic mad scientist stowed away in a castle with a hunchbacked assistant is a product of movies. If the actual narrative were like that, Shelley likely would have been laughed out of the room, or be seen as a pioneer in pulp. Either way, it wouldn’t be considered the venerated literary work it is today.
This adaptation, penned by Nick Dear, begins with the birth of the Creature. Staged by Boyle as if emerging from a womb, the first scene is a clinic in physical performance. After Cumberbatch emerges from the egg-like membrane in which he had been encased─no big metal operating table in this version─he writhes around on the ground for a solid 10 minutes as he slowly moves through the early stages of development, particularly as it applies to motor skills. As he laboriously gains his bearings, he’s confronted by Victor, who rejects him and runs away.
It’s immediately evident in Dear’s take on the story that the Creature will be more prominently featured than Victor. This is his story. Particularly, the audience is led to question the notion of existence and tackle the question of who really is the monster. Dear’s script is engaging and gives the audience a Creature unlike any they’ve seen, including Robert DeNiro in the Kenneth Branaugh film. This Creature is so human and aware. To watch his belabored existence is heartbreaking. And that’s a credit to Dear.
Many of the story elements remain consistent with Shelley’s original text, with only slight liberties taken. Dear’s script is immaculate and represents the best communication of Shelley’s original words, particularly highlighting the inter-textual nature of her prose.
Cumberbatch’s decision, likewise by Boyle’s guiding hand, to treat the Creature’s entrance into the world as a birth and have him grow up as if progressing from baby to toddler to adolescent is undeniably an inventive take on the subject but can sometimes distract as Cumberbatch sometimes resembles a crack-addled three-year-old in his gestures and mannerisms, yet is quoting Dante. He needed to dial it down just a notch or two. He was on the right track, but oversold it.
Speaking of overdoing it, Miller’s Victor is so intense even Christian Bale would tell him to calm down. Granted, it’s a fairly intense role, but in the few opportunities Miller has to experience a truly human moment, particularly with his sweet fiancé Elizabeth (Naomi Harris), his fervid state never melts away enough to create any real empathy.
Ultimately, both men are impressive in their respective roles and intrigue enough to make one want to return to see them switch places. Those criticisms are nitpicky.
The other star of the production is the work of scenice designer Mark Tildesley, lighting designer Bruno Poet and Boyle. The set is truly impressive. Deceptively simple, it is made versatile through the use of a revolving platform, a set of rails, set pieces that lower from above and others that rise from under the stage. Put simply, this stage make Dallas’ Wyly Theatre seem quaint. And to top it all off, there is a cascading array of incandescent lights spilling from the back of the house down to the stage. Each is individually controlled and the production team uses the theme of electricity through this creation in a way that makes viewers both squint and go wide-eyed with amazement. Impressive.
Though it pains people to hear it, the Britons still know how to do theater better than most anyone in the English-speaking world (certainly better than us Yanks). And Frankenstein is a specimen within their theatrical archive. What Boyle has brought to us a version of the classic tale that will likely stand the test of time, especially considering it’s been captured on film.
And with such a cinematically well-versed team behind it, one is left asking this question: when can we expect the actual film adaptation? And while normally that might be said tongue-in-cheek, your inquiry would be genuine in this case.
This is the best take on Frankenstein since Mary Shelley created her monster.
◊ The screenings with Miller as Victor and Cumberbatch as the Creature continue on March 27 and 29 at the Angelika Film Center in Plano. Then, the version with Cumberbatch as Frankenstein and Miller as the Creature are 7 p.m. April 13 and 14 at Angelika Film Center Dallas; and April 17 and 19 at Angelika Film Center Plano.
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