Victor Frankenstein review: “leaves subtlety at the laboratory door”

Daniel Radcliffe's sympathetic Igor is overshadowed by James McAvoy's OTT turn as the mad scientist, in this hodgepodge adaptation of the Mary Shelley classic

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★★

Frankenstein films have been around almost as long as cinema. From the classic Universal horrors of the 30s, to the not-so-classic modern interpretations such as last year’s dire I, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s novel has been adapted in every shape and form for the silver screen. So what can Victor Frankenstein bring to the legend that we haven’t already seen many times over?

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Written by John Landis’s son Max (Chronicle, American Ultra), this is the famous story told through the eyes of Igor (Daniel Radcliffe). Far from the shrill, hunchbacked servant of old, he is an intelligent but abused circus clown whose talents are noticed by brilliant physician Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy). Now living with his new benefactor, Igor assists in Frankenstein’s mission to put an end to death. However, when the lines between innovation and obsession become blurred, the lives of both men are thrown into danger.

“Sometimes, when you look closely, there’s more to the tale,” Radcliffe says ominously in voiceover. And to give the film its due, it spares no effort trying to find a new spin on the story, which may be the problem.

Story-wise the film descends into chaos, throwing different subplots together in an attempt to fix something that wasn’t really broken. One minute the film is a cheeky, energetic caper (not unlike Guy Ritchie’s take on Sherlock Holmes), the next a dark exploration of obsession. Indeed, the only thing we’re sure of is that the film will slowly turn into just another Frankenstein movie – and not a very good one at that. Characters clamour for your attention, noisily reaching a conclusion it could have arrived at with half the fuss.

With floppy hair and a wounded expression, Radcliffe’s crowd-friendly take on hunchback Igor is one of the few ways the film distinguishes itself from the pack. He’s meant to be the film’s awestruck moral centre, but is completely overshadowed by McAvoy in one of his more peculiar performances to date. Leaving subtlety at the laboratory door, his take on the original mad scientist is baffling, mixing arrogant showmanship with teeth-grinding mania. Over-the-top doesn’t quite cover it.

Sherlock series director Paul McGuigan attempts to calm the madness by drafting in some favourites from the show, chiefly Andrew Scott as the staunchly religious Inspector Turpin. We’re given incomplete clues as to his motivation, but ultimately he’s one of two antagonists (along with Freddie Fox’s acerbic toff) that don’t feel anywhere meaty enough due to the short attention span of the script.

Equally stranded is Igor’s love interest Lorelei (Downton Abbey star Jessica Brown Findlay), who becomes little more than a sounding board for our hero, while the glowering Charles Dance has barely one scene as Victor’s disapproving father. One can only assume Mark Gatiss, seen in the background of the film’s messy finale, didn’t make the final cut.

Much like the murmuring creature of Shelley’s novels, Victor Frankenstein is a lot of ideas sewn together, that emerges without ever really knowing what it is. Despite a hint at a sequel in the film’s closing scene, this loud and contrived experiment may be best forgotten.

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Victor Frankenstein is released in cinemas on 3 December 2015