As soon as Daniel Radcliffe appears on screen looking like a hunchbacked Victorian Rastafarian in whiteface, it becomes apparent that this umpteenth screen adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is more concerned with the tale’s surface grotesqueries than with its timeless ideas concerning the ethical limits of Enlightenment reason. Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein is the movie version of a carnival sideshow, all smoke and mirrors, presenting a litany of human freaks and animal monstrosities to distract from the superficiality of its psychological and intellectual concerns.
In Shelley’s philosophical novel, Victor Frankenstein is a brooding, sensitive, and paranoid genius, whose monstrous creation is an expression of his personal grief; his megalomania never trumped his relationships with those he held most dear. In McGuigan’s film, Victor (James McAvoy) is an angry and arrogant loner, dismissive of all those around him as his intellectual inferiors, only making an exception for Igor (Radcliffe) because of his extraordinary medical skills and comparable zeal for scientific knowledge.
Victor and Igor here are pale imitations of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively. Victor’s monomania never truly feels dangerous to himself or those around him, even when it gets him into hot water with his nefarious classmate (Freddie Fox) from medical school or a devoutly Christian police inspector, Turpin (Andrew Scott). Meanwhile, Igor’s practical outlook, small stature, and fumbling attempts at heterosexual romance supplies Victor with a comic foil. But this sad clown’s tribulations are ultimately too trivial to register either as tragedy or comedy.
While the early homoerotic jostling between Victor and Igor is hopeful, suggesting the filmmakers are striving for an intentional level of camp, the film never fully embraces the inherent kitsch of its flamboyant characters and queer subtext. Though there’s an extraneous romantic subplot involving Igor and a trapeze artist, Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay), the true love story here is the ménage à trois between Victor, Igor, and science, which the filmmakers argue (perhaps unintentionally) is an unnatural state by presenting the fruits engendered by this union as monstrosities, as in a zombie chimpanzee and the Frankenstein monster itself. The monster is a mere afterthought, reduced to only a few minutes of screen time, which is fitting given that he’s the aborted love child of the aforementioned love triangle.
The film articulates well enough the pursuit of science and the study of medicine as a deeply romantic, even seductive, endeavor. Victor and Igor are only happy together when pushing the absolute limits of scientific progress. And it’s Igor’s medical knowledge that makes him attractive to Lorelei, while Victor’s passion for knowledge is his only likable trait. Victor makes intellectual mincemeat of Turpin’s Christian zeal and moralizing. However, the work’s own confused morality, caught between celebrating Victor’s scientific rationality and condemning its results, blunts the impact of what could have been a potent argument in favor of pursuing science and reason in the face of popular obscurantism, a struggle that continues to this day.