Cast: Helen McCrory (Dr Victoria Frankenstein), James Purefoy (Dr Henry Clerval), Neil Pearson (Professor Waldman), Lindsay Duncan (Professor Pretorius), Benedict Wong (Dr Ed Gore), Fraser James (Joe), Peter Wight (DCS Goode), Michael Wildman (DCI Andy Connolly), Ace Bhatti (Dr Dhillon), Julian Bleach (The Monster), Matthew Rault-Smith (William), Cally Hamilton (Little Girl), Bruce Johnson (American) & Anna Torv (ITU Nurse)
Oh, where to begin? Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is an overrated Victorian fiction that postulated interesting notions, but it was the James Whale-directed movie that really provided the pop-culture spark (pardon the pun), and ensured Shelley's novel would echo through the generations.
You all know the story: a "mad" professor, dead body parts stitched together, a cobwebbed laboratory, a bolt of lightning, and hey presto – a living, childlike, murderous abhorrence of nature. Neck bolts included.
The original film adaptation has been followed-up (Bride Of Frankenstein), parodied (Young Frankenstein), remade (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) and, owing to absence of copyright, often provides inspiration for low-budget filmmakers (Frankenstein Unbound.)
And then there are the modern updates – the latest of which comes from writer-director Jed Mercurio, whose previous late-90s foray into sci-fi resulted in the disappointing Invasion: Earth for the BBC.
Frankenstein was a 90-minute special that cast Helen McCrory as Victoria Frankenstein (although nobody mentions her surname, for fear of laughing.) Victoria's a stem-cell research scientist, whose work might save her dying son, although her ex-husband Dr Henry Clerval (James Purefoy) is more accepting of their son's imminent death.
When the inevitable happens and her son passes away, instead of moving on, Victoria proceeds with her controversial stem-cell work -- using some of her dead child's DNA to create life from a vat of red syrup and noodles. Following a thunderstorm (and the inevitable rogue bolt of lightning), the vat's contents are released and The Monster (Julian Bleach) crawls away to kill a curious little girl in a local forest, before returning to the lab to find mummy...
The idea of updating any 19th-Century horror fiction usually results in crud like Dracula 2000, so my hopes weren't high. But, after Steven Moffat produced a flawed, but very enjoyable update of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde for the BBC recently, I was hoping Jed Mercurio could perform a similar feat for ITV. Sadly, Frankenstein was everything I detest about horror updates and cruddy ITV dramas in general...
The pacing was laborious, despite the fact Victoria utters the immortal line "It's alive" just 20 minutes in, and the creature is "born" 10 minutes later. That left a solid hour with the Monster itself, but nothing ever surprised you or provided an emotional punch.
Helen McCrory was particularly bad at acting horrified. A sequence where she discovers her freakish Monster-child hiding in her shed, playing with sparkling toys, elicited the reaction of someone who's discovered they've run out of toilet paper in a public convenience!
The update itself basically consisted of one modern idea (the stem-cell component), gave us no reason to invest in Victoria or Henry's tragedy with their son (who's unconscious throughout), and even disappointed with the rudimentary "creature runs amok" aspect of the story.
Neil Pearson and Lindsay Duncan popped up as moral compasses and sounding boards, as Professor Waldman and Pretorius, but both looked uncomfortable being involved in something so obviously poor.
The only thing that sustained any interest was the creature's design itself -- which resembled Helen McCroy's face stretched around an albino E.T. The Monster (a good mix of physical performance and CGI face) was wisely kept in the shadows, its features only revealed in slow teases -- until it eventually became a hoodie-wearing "teenager" sat on a beach...
Jed Mercurio, who created dark medical drama Bodies, and has a personal background as a doctor, seemed an ideal match for a contemporary Frankenstein, but it wasn't to be. The whiffs of social commentary (the treatment of disabled children, primarily) weren't fleshed out, and it was difficult to see The Monster as Victoria's "reborn son". He was just a bodged clone -- and a warped duplicate doesn't carry the same impact as actually reviving a deceased child.
Perhaps if we'd been shown Victoria's son alive and well, before his untimely death, we'd have noticed similarities between him and the DNA-match Monster, to help provide an emotional connection...
But unfortunately, that wasn't the case – so we're left with "evil E.T", given a belated Down's Syndrome overtone. Still, the decision to feminize Frankenstein was a welcome (if predictable) nod to author Mary Shelley herself, who famously wrote Frankenstein to cope with the grief of losing her own child.
I hate to dump on homegrown sci-fi, but in the current era of UK telefantasy, Frankenstein was a witless throwback to the mid-90s: predictable plotting, weak acting, droning music, formulaic scares, general silliness, vague science, and low-budget production values. It definitely wasn't an early Halloween treat.
In a story about life after death, ITVs Frankenstein was dead on arrival -- with no hope of resuscitation.
24 October 2007
ITV1, 9.00 pm