VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN begins by telling us that we have heard this story before. And we have. Sort of. The Frankenstein (James McAvoy) in question is the one that built the iconic monster out of spare human parts, but it’s Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), the man scientist’s assistant, who is our narrator, and it’s from his fresh, and refreshing, perspective that we discover another dimension the gruesome goings-on.
Igor is an assumed name, bestowed upon the heretofore nameless hunchback by Victor after rescuing him from his life of bondage in the circus. It was no act of charity. He was there on an errand that had nothing to do with seeing acrobats or clowns, but became sidetracked when an aerialist, the lovely Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay) plummets to the sawdust below during a performance. The soon-to-be Igor, an autodidact in human anatomy, correctly diagnoses Lorelei’s injuries, and then, just for good measure, devises a remedy involving both Victor’s pocket watch and judiciously applied pressure. Impressed by the intellect, if not the matted hair and clown make-up, Victor abets Igor’s daring escape, deals with that unsightly hump on his back, and gives Igor a new life he never could have imagined.
In Max Landis’ script, new life is a constant trope, and not just that of animating dead tissue. Death is another trope, naturally, as well as the ones that contain a few nice, and sadly timely, jabs at the madness of fanaticism, and the nature corporate greed in England circa 1860. There is also a dash of poetry, as both Victor and Igor tend to see, and so do we courtesy of impeccable hand-drawn models, beyond the surface of things into the mechanical splendor that is sinews, muscle, and bone. We may not share Igor’s delight in rewiring the nervous system of a specimen, but we can perfectly understand his fascination. And even Victor’s obsession. We can also perfectly understand Igor’s equally poetic love for Lorelei, expressed by Radcliffe with the pure innocence and fervent longing of a puppy dog.
As is only suitable in a film about creating life, the action is lively, the tone not quite tongue-in-cheek, and the dialogue pugnaciously impudent. McAvoy is the embodiment of it all. Introduced with a spray of fireworks, he leaps and bounds through Igor’s escape with the quick thinking and assured agility of 007. At every moment exuding a giddy elan at the prospect of conquering death, and oblivious to his monomania, he is a charismatic imp of deep, unrestrained passions. Dangerous to know, impossible to desert.
Landis is not above throwing in a reference to Mel Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. We also learn why the Monster has a flat head. It’s a welcome balance to the disheartening dip into the maudlin that comes towards the end, after Victor’s ferocious father (Charles Dance) has cut his son down to size, a rosary-clutching police inspector (Andrew Scott) has decided to thwart the abomination in progress that he has puzzled out, and the electrified monkey has run amok.
VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN is a delightful gothic romp. Set in a distinctly unromantic London rife with grime and smog, it has a contemporary feel, and a bracing sense of adventure.