James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe try to breathe new life into a classic tale in Victor Frankenstein, an action-adventure from director Paul McGuigan (Sherlock) told from the perspective of the scientist’s assistant, Igor.
Radcliffe plays an unnamed hunchback rescued from the circus by charismatic medical student Victor Frankenstein (McAvoy), who recognises his potential when he diagnoses and treats a fallen trapeze artist on the spot.
Victor makes him his protégé, and ropes ‘Igor’ into aiding him with his experiments, leading to the two building a creature from reassembled body parts. Proceedings take a dark turn, with Victor sliding further towards the mad scientist end of the movie cliché spectrum and Igor starting to have doubts.
All it takes is the dangled carrot of patronage by toff classmate Finnegan (Freddie Fox) for the two’s friendship to be firmly booted out of the window in the name of science, as Igor is reminded: “Know your place.” It’s up to him to save his friend from himself and pious Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott).
While Igor isn’t a Mary Shelley creation, it is interesting to see the filmmakers play around with a stock character. Radcliffe imbues Igor with pathos and innocence. McAvoy’s Frankenstein is a rock star; witty, captivating and energetic – it’s easy to understand how Igor could be swept up in his wake. Yet hidden under the eccentricity and mood swings is a man who desperately needs a friend. The character might be a cliché, yet McAvoy shows conviction and an undercurrent of anguish.
The script does play with expectations, even sneaking in a Young Frankenstein call-back for good measure. Scott’s intensity is always watchable and Charles Dance corners the market in disapproving dad figures as the good (trainee) doctor’s father. But Igor’s love interest Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay) is woefully under-developed, which begs the question: why have her there if the story is the friendship between Victor and his apprentice?
One of the film’s chief crimes is using McGuffins like the atrociously-named ‘Lazarus Fork’ to explain away the reanimation scenes. Too many jarring moments like that later, and you might start picking at the scab that formed during that out-of-place slow-mo action scene, or when you let it go that a circus clown had access to anatomy books. Still, there aren’t many Frankenstein movies where the leading man sparks a circus ringmaster. You have to admire the chutzpah.
Like Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes before it, Victor Frankenstein feels a tad hollow, and your enjoyment will depend on whether you’re looking for a faithful adaptation or are open to something different. Frankenstein’s creation does not wander Earth in search of answers or love; it doesn’t even speak. In fact, it makes for quite the anti-climax, but really this is a story about Victor creating Igor.
Ropey CGI aside, the film looks good and the two leads are decent, but it’s not enough to rescue Victor Frankenstein from being a disappointing modern-day retelling.