Tag Archives: British actors

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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