Frankenstein Review Redux

11 Apr

2000irises: Frankenstein Review Redux


While I’m putting the finish touches on my review of Hanna (I expect to post that tomorrow), I thought I might discuss the opposite casting of Frankenstein. I saw it April 2nd when it ran at Notre Dame. In the first broadcast version, I loved Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature, but now there is NO question in my mind that the Jonny Lee Miller – Creature / Benedict Cumberbatch – Victor is a far better combo. Cumberbatch nails Victor, bringing life and complexity to the character that JLM did not. I originally thought Victor was underwritten and his motivations confused and neglected; now I see what was missing — nuanced acting. I really like JLM as an actor, and maybe he’d had an off night when they filmed (he did seem hoarse and tired), but the difference was remarkable. Instead of just being vaguely a self-centered jerk as played by JLM, Victor is a downright scary sociopath in BC’s hands. Every detail of the performance was different: line delivery, facial expression, physical movement, stage presence — Victor’s very interactions with the other characters changed.

Two examples stand out vividly for me. The very first time we see Victor, he storms on stage and reacts to finding the creature alive with revulsion and horror. JLM rushed onstage, yelled something incoherent at the Creature, threw the cloak at him, and ran away a few seconds later. In contrast, BC rushed on stage and stayed to actually act out the mix of emotions Victor clearly felt. You could see Victor marveling at his accomplishment even while disgusted. The plotting of the scene was the same, but the meaning and relevance changed significantly and took more time.

In another scene, Victor is explaining to Elizabeth why he must return to England. He’s obsessing about creating the Creature’s bride. Victor assures his fiancee that she’s beautiful and he desires her. Where JLM seemed to be just mouthing the words with no emotion whatsoever behind the lines, BC slows down and uses facial expressions to communicate what’s happening in Victor’s mind. He holds up Elizabeth’s arm and studies it with a clinical coldness which is terrifying. We can see he’s imagining her as one of his experiments: she’s a specimen to be considered, not a living, feeling person at all. It’s the first time we see the parallel between the two brides, foreshadowing the coming horror. It’s breathtakingly awful (and freaking awesome.)

On the other hand, I could not see the same variance in the two actors’ portrayal of the Creature. They each did the Creature a bit differently, of course, but not in a way which impacted the significance of the character. Most of the difference lay in their body-types, I felt. JLM is stockier and more powerful, BC is longer and more fluid. I wouldn’t say either was “better.” The delivery, the depth, our belief in the Creature — all these aspects were pretty balanced. JLM was amazing as the Creature, which is obviously an enormous challenge. The role is complex and demanding, and must be hell to act. But bringing life to Victor is a more subtle challenge. Comparatively, Victor doesn’t have much stage time, but he’s still absolutely crucial to the play. We need Victor in order to truly appreciate the structure and meaning of the play.

As an aside, Frankenstein encapsulates something about British performers that captivates me. Good British actors and actresses are versatile in a way even the best American actors rarely are. Both JLM and Cumberbatch have shown they can do period drama, action, freaks, junkies, creeps and weirdos, straight drama, comedy, romance (less so for BC here, but gosh would I love to see more. I’m sure he’d be good at it. *cough-lastenemykisses-cough*) Also many British actors and actresses are as comfortable on stage as they are on screen. Perhaps Hollywood just has a greater tendency to typecast and pigeonhole. Perhaps American theater is too Broadway-focused. Doubtless there are dozens of American performers who can pull off multi-genre, multi-medium performances, but who? Kathleen Turner. Laura Linney. Natalie Portman. Matt Damon? Brad Pitt? Harrison Ford, maybe. (It’s harder to think of men.) I’m sure there are others, but I have to actually think about it. I wouldn’t say the same for British entertainers.

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3 Responses to “Frankenstein Review Redux”

  1. Bekkah April 12, 2011 at 1:33 pm #

    I wish I had seen the turnabout. I love both actors as well, but I can see BC being the more nuanced. I also completely agree with your assessment of British actors vs. American.

  2. Danielle May 1, 2011 at 11:11 am #

    Yes, you’re so right about British versus American actors. I’m struggling to think of a good versatile actor — Johnny Depp, Harrison Ford, Paul Giamatti, perhaps Jim Carrey, Bill Murray, Tom Hanks. On the other hand, I can think of several British actors who can seamlessly play a variety of parts — Gary Oldman comes to mind first for me (the man is a chameleon), Hugh Laurie definitely, Kenneth Branagh, Martin Freeman.

    However, it might just be typecasting. Many of the American actors I thought of were originally pigeon-holed into only one character at first and then they showed that they had chops for something else. Even Will Ferrell did a decent job of being more than just a goofy exhibitionist in Stranger Than Fiction. I often joke that if you watch enough British tv or movies you will pretty much get an idea of all the actors (for example, hasn’t almost every British actor now been in Harry Potter by this point? :) ) There are less actors so maybe there’s more opportunities for them to try a variety of genres and roles.

    Hollywood likes shorthand just a little too much and trusts its audiences so very little sometimes to be clever and sophisticated enough for certain types of storytelling and acting.

    • Darlene May 1, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

      Thanks ladies! I think you´re absolutely right, Danielle. I think a problem probably is that there aren´t as many opportunities in Hollywood for actors to break out of typecasting. I know that it is a problem in Britain too — I think many of them fight against the ¨period film¨ trap, but many of them seem to do that easily — or maybe it just seems that way to me — someone who is neither British or involved in the industry. But in addition to the typecasting question, there´s the stage / sceen equation as well. You just don´t see too many American actors making that shift, let alone going back and forth.

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