It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The monster has always been the true subject of the Frankenstein story, and Kenneth Branagh's new retelling understands that. "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" has all of the usual props of the Frankenstein films, brought to a fever pitch: The dark and stormy nights, the lightning bolts, the charnel houses of spare body parts, the laboratory where Victor Frankenstein stirs his steaming cauldron of life. But the center of the film, quieter and more thoughtful, contains the real story.
The Creature (Robert De Niro) has escaped his captivity and wandered into a pastoral setting where a little family lives peacefully. It is cold, and he creeps into the barn, feeding from the same trough as the pigs, and looking longingly through the window to the peaceful scene around the hearth. In the night he prepares firewood for his unwitting hosts. The family gradually becomes aware that some sort of forest spirit is befriending him - and the old grandfather, who is blind, actually invites the Creature in to sit by the fire.
This Creature, more than those in any of the earlier films, is acutely aware that in appearance he is a hideous monster. He also knows more about his origins. He reads Frankenstein's original journal, and learns how he was constructed from parts of dead bodies.
And he is thoughtful: "Yes, I speak, and read, and think, and know the ways of man," he says, with an echo of Caliban. And he asks, "What of my soul? Do I have one? What of these people of which I am composed?" The whole issue of the Branagh film is concentrated here: Has Frankenstein created a monster, or a man? De Niro brings a real pathos to the role, and there is agony when he asks the scientist, "Did you ever consider the consequences of your actions?" And his loneliness is palpable: "For the sympathy of one living being I would make peace with all." But the film surrounding these scenes is less satisfactory.