Jonny Lee Miller as the creature desperately trying to bring an exhausted Bernard Cumberbatch as Frankenstein back to life on the ice
Dear friends and readers,
Yes, I’ve just returned from watching the version of Nick Dear and Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein where Miller is the creature and Cumberbatch Frankenstein. The moviehouse had the version where Cumberbatch is the creature and Miller Frankenstein on Monday night. I didn’t know. Next year if my local HD theater repeats this duo, I’ll be sure and see Cumberbatch as the creature and Miller as Dr Frankenstein.
Not that I was at all disappointed: I have known since watching Miller in an episode of Prime Suspect (and in the difficult roles of Edmund Bertram in Patricia Rozema’s 1999 MP and Mr Knightley in Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma) what a versatile, effective, deeply feeling compelling actor he is. In this intelligent adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel (and the novel is kept in mind throughout), the creature is far more central to the action and consciousness of the play than his creator. We see his birth from his point of view,
Jonny Lee Miller as the monster being born
how he moves bewilder through a landscape of powerful machines and cruel people, to happening on the French family escaped from injustice and the kindness of the blind old scholar, De Lacey (Karl Johnson gets some comedy out of this role) to him, in succouring him, teaching him,
so (except for Frankenstein’s horrified rejection of his creature and abandonment of him) it is a long time before before Cumberbatch returns to the stage. And Frankenstein is the far less astonishing presence, even if central to the emotional action-reaction at play’s center
Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein pushing away from him what he has done
I’d just like to see how different would be the feel and meaning in the reversal; according to Michael Billington of The Guardian, considerable.
What Dear and Boyle did was pare down the novel to its doppelganger, and in their characters, their talk, their relationship all the themes of Mary Shelley are drawn out. Some of the matter is lost: the depiction of larger social injustice is not there and so the instinctive fears and savagery of human beings to one another is not outweighed; much of Frankenstein’s life and relationships: the depiction of education (critiqued), how Frankenstein began to try to recreate life partly in reaction to his mother’s death; his arrogance and lack of responsible behavior to others, the intense distrust of science. Frankenstein is someone not social (of course a no no), going off on his own. The emphasis of this twist is so 21st century. The role of Elizabeth is made to enact socialableness (a new word), responsibility, an attempt at kindness towards the creature, and that natural ways trump egoistic artifice. Naomi Harris is effective in the hard role in both versions (a side note, she played the black heroine to Cumberbatch’s white anti-hero in Small Island).
I suppose what is so compelling is the dialogue between the two, what’s said, but one is exhilarated even in a movie version by the staging, the use of machinery, the pivotal stage, the symbolic way each phase of the story is presented — matching the fantasy aspects of the story (for it is fantasy). I’ve been to the National Theater in London (with Jim) and seen a number of these creative productions: Aeschylus trilogy comes to mind, Henry IV part 2 (Michael Gambon as Falstaff), and at home on Bravo, the Yorkshire Mystery Plays. The material from Shelley is gothic, but the conventions here eschew anything like film noir or horror/slash movies. it’s really an intimate one-on-one play (not so different in this from say the Fly episode of Breaking Bad where we get a similar intense interaction for an hour between Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul as Mr White and Jesse respectively, with bodies entangled eventually too).
One of the best reviews is that of Paul Taylor of the Independent, only he is wrong to say the play ends so differently from the novel. Yes at the close of Shelley’s novel it seems the creature immolates himself on a pyre on a slab of ice, while Frankenstein expires in Walton’s ship but it seems to me this dying is not what is important: it is the the pursuit and the insight (emphasized by Shelley in her text) that the two creatures to live on are forever intertwined in their hatred and (due to Frankenstein) thwarted love.
He lives for my destruction. I live to lead him on
I haven’t any shots of Frankenstein pulling his sled after the creature (nor of Andrea Padurariu as the Female Creature Frankenstein is drawn to himself, but destroys), but I do of the creature’s desperation when he thinks Frankenstein may have died, and his loving attempt to bring Frankenstein back to life so they can up and move on again (see still at top). In this one the director had Michelangelo’s famous image of God and Adam in mind:
Ice is central to the gothic and among the additions to Shelley’s vision, is that of body snatchers: the uses of corpses, poor people’s remains is brought out in comic pragmaticism when in Scotland Dr Frankenstein pays two Scots peasants to bring him materials. I thought of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher.
Perhaps Dear congratulated himself too much on having given the creature back his voice, for Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 production of Frankenstein (screenplay Steph Lady, and Frank Darabout, producer Francis Ford Coppola) with Robert De Niro as the monster and Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth and a bride-monster of Frankenstein, had an equally articulate poignant presence for the monster. Dear and Boyle learned from Branagh and De Niro.
It was a production and is now a film which shows how transcendent and variable the gothic can be. The New York Times critic made fun of it — a paradoxical measure of its transcendence (the monster is alive and peeved!) It’s very effective in this film production – – where they do intersperse some stills from the 1931 Whale Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff), but for once I will concede that I was aware how much more charged it must be to have been in the theater. I don’t often feel this in the HD operas which are directed for film; this is a play taking advantage of all the techniques and stagings possible nowadays of a theater in the round and live stage.
It’s worth while to listen to Dear’s description of a many year project and the book as providing a contemporary creation myth:
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