Novel updates

18th November 1994 at 00:00
In one respect, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and The Browning Version have directly contrary ambitions. The second brings Terence Rattigan's play (first performed in 1948) in to a vague present, implying that it has some timeless relevance; while Kenneth Branagh discards what has become a timeless cinema myth, in order to return Mary Shelley's story to her and put it back in its historical context. For different reasons, after seeing either film, you might be tempted to ask: why?

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (the novel, not the film) has been subject to some interesting re-readings in the light of recent viewpoints, including feminist ones, on social and scientific history in the early 19th century, but there is not much room for any of these in a dramatic rendering of the story. Branagh draws on Mary's own experiences to emphasise Victor Frankenstein's ambition to benefit the world by overcoming death; but you have to know the author's biography to know that. Otherwise Frankenstein is a Gothic horror, attentive to period details, but still offering a version of Romanticism as excess - staring eyes, flowing garments, outpourings of emotion, flashes of lightning - which leaves little space for any consideration of the ideas that Mary dressed up in these fictional conventions.

So, Branagh gives us the most faithful rendering of the novel, but fails to show any compelling reason for wanting to render it. One senses that the makers of the film are aware that it needs something to galvanise it into life.

Their answer is an intrusive musical score and an over-excited camera which revolves frantically at moments of emotional intensity, whirling round and round in what one fears the director may intend as a simile for other kinds of revolution. There are some great visual moments, despite this, and a fine performance from Robert De Niro as the rejected, then vengeful Monster. But everything else was already in the book.

Mike Figgis also makes you wonder why, with an adaptation of Terence Rattigan's short play about a retiring schoolmaster, which superficially updates it to the present, while leaving the attitudes, teaching methods and curriculum back in 1948, so that one finds oneself constantly niggling over anachronisms: in 1994, would Frank (Matthew Modine) really have many scruples about committing adultery with Crocker-Harris' frustrated wife? Would young Taplow (Ben Silverstone) find his parents' divorce such a stigma? Would Crocker-Harris himself (Albert Finney) have survived his first inspection, let alone an entire teaching career?

There are other contradictions. Central to the drama is the notion that the Classics teacher has a duty to transmit certain core values of Western civilisation. The idea that these are to be conveyed exclusively through writing Latin verses and reading Aeschylus has become harder to sustain; yet it is a premiss of the play that Taplow's switch to science and the incorporation of Classics into a new language department that will include - God forbid! - French and German, illustrate the extent of Crocker-Harris' failure. Instead of leaving this argument to die quietly, there is an attempt to bring it up to date, by making "the Crock" remark on the fleeting popularity of Russian in schools, until perestroika (compared to the consistent take-up for Greek?).

Admittedly, without this attempt to find contemporary relevance in the play, we would be left with little except another portrait of a repressed English male: a solid piece of work by Albert Finney, and the kind of movie that is often chosen to open the London Film Festival (until November 20). Instead, this year, Frankenstein had the honour and amateurs of repressed English sexual feelings will have to make do with Brief Encounter (November 20), this year's National Film Archive Restoration. As usual, France is well-represented at the Festival, with Patrice Chereau's La Reine Margot as its major export.

There will be opportunities to see that later; as usual the best strategy for the Festival has been to take pot luck, with a good chance of falling on some unusual foreign movies that may never find a British director.

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