If you’re to have any hope at all of enjoying “Victor Frankenstein”, you’ll need to ‘consciously uncouple’ yourself from the source novel. The script takes its inspiration not from Mary Shelley’s text but instead the many, many works derived from it in the years following its publication. The ‘twist’ this time round is the story is told from Igor’s point of view, a character notable for not having appeared at all in the original novel.
When a maltreated but keenly intelligent crippled hunchback (Daniel Radcliffe) is opportunistically rescued from the circus by maverick medical student Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy), he adopts the guise of Frankenstein’s absentee roommate Igor and helps the scientist with his research into reanimating dead tissue. Their work draws the unwelcome and dogged attention of the devoutly religious Inspector Turpin of Scotland Yard (Andrew Scott) but when their work captures the interest of the ruthlessly ambitious aristocrat Finnegan (a loathsomely foppish Freddie Fox), Victor’s hubris leads him down a dark and dangerous path.
There’s an undeniable energy and silly sense of fun as the film kicks off. Director Paul McGuigan, a veteran of TV’s “Sherlock” brings many of the same directorial tricks and flourishes to bear on the steampunk Victoriana settings and the mash-up of styles actually ends up evoking another modern Baker Street incarnation: that of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes series. In an age where shared universes are apparently all the rage (despite only one studio having actually managed it so far), it’s easy to see McAvoy’s Victor Frankenstein pounding the cobbled streets of London alongside Robert Downey Jr’s Holmes.
Cast-wise, Radcliffe impresses the most, bringing real emotional weight to Igor’s divided loyalties to Frankenstein and his beloved Lorelei but he’s constantly overshadowed by a performance from McAvoy which could charitably be described as ‘broad’. Full of swivel-eyed lunacy and spittle-flecked in-your-face snarling, it’s lucky McGuigan favoured practical scenery and effects wherever possible otherwise there would have been nothing for McAvoy to chew on apart from his fellow cast mates.
Effectively the film acts as a prequel to the events of the novel as the monster that everyone’s expecting to see only appears briefly in the frantic and chaotic finale. The script vacillates between two main plot strands and, in the end, plumps for an uneasy mix of both, slightly favouring the less interesting one, that of Finnegan’s plans to raise an army of manufactured super soldiers. Had it concentrated instead on exploring and expanding the subtext of religion versus science by giving more screen time and substance to Andrew Scott’s fervently pious Inspector this could have ended up being something quite extraordinary as we got to see Scott and McAvoy go head to head in an ideologically obsessive grudge match.
Brimming with ideas (although not always sure what to do with them) and some whip-smart dialogue, McGuigan keeps things kinetic and vibrant and, if nothing else, it deserves to be seen on the big screen for the sumptuous production design of Eve Stewart and the beautiful costumes of Jany Temine. “Victor Frankenstein” is not a serious adaptation of a legendary literary work. It’s an ever-so-slightly- silly, devilishly fun, over-the-top penny dreadful brought to colourful, anarchic and – during one cyst-draining scene – stomach churningly to life.