Despite what the trailers will try and tell you, "Victor Frankenstein" is in fact a fairly straightforward, character-driven drama about the relationship between mad scientist Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) and his hunchbacked assistant Igor Strausman (Daniel Radcliffe) that just happens to have a few monsters.
Rather than remake the classic story (or should I say monster), "Victor Frankenstein" is a prequel revealing the origins of Dr. Frankenstein's most famous experiment. Effectively filling the gaps provided by Shelley's novel, this film provides a ghastly look at his first hideous, soulless attempts at creating life, which predate the sympathetic, flat-topped creature as portrayed by Boris Karloff that we all know and love. That being said, this film owes much more to the film adaptations of Frankenstein than the book itself. A tip-off is the prominent inclusion of Igor, an invention not of Shelley's but of Universal Studios, who cast the incomparable Dwight Frye as Fritz in James Whale's "Frankenstein" (1931), which morphed in Ygor and finally Igor in subsequent sequels and adaptations.
Bearing a somewhat misleading title, the film is really Igor's story. Working as a nameless freak in a circus due to his physical deformity (which Radcliffe portrays brilliantly; he could be the next Lon Chaney Sr.), he is a stranger to kindness until he meets Victor, who recognizes his brilliant mind and vast medical knowledge. Igor is given a new appearance, a new name, and a new life by his generous benefactor, on the condition that he work as Victor's partner and assistant, bringing his expertise to animating individual body parts for use in the highly-strung medical student's unholy enterprise. Victor, in his megalomania, as the "creator" of Igor, demands his complete loyalty, something that is easy for the grateful younger man to give until he strikes up a romance with Lorelei, the aerialist he worshiped from afar during his time at the circus. Slowly, he begins to see beyond his unwavering devotion to the disturbed madness of Victor's mania for creating life out of death.
To add to the conflict, Victor and Igor find themselves being pursued by the Javert-like Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott), who, as a man as consumed by his religion as Victor is by his rejection of it, refuses to rest until he and his ungodly experiments are brought to an end. This gives the film a chance to explore the cautionary message present in Shelley's novel about trying to control to forces of nature in further depth than simply showing the misbegotten monsters alone.
Visually, "Victor Frankenstein" is a treat. Turn-of-the-century London is portrayed in equal parts glittery and grimy, with period-appropriate costumes and hair adding to the effect. You can't have a "Frankenstein" movie without a few dead bodies, and this film is not shy about showing the various viscera, though it is all for a purpose and is far from excessive, with much less blood, gore, and grotesqueness than I was expecting. Much more is implied than actually shown in detail. As someone who avoids modern horror films for their indulgence, I applaud the filmmakers' restraint. The action scenes, which number precisely four and take up less than a quarter of the film's one-hour and forty-nine minute running time, are brief but intense, though rather tame when compared with your average action movie. They give Radcliffe a chance to utilize his gift for physicality, which he plays to the fullest.
Yet for all its trappings as a horror film, the heart of "Victor Frankenstein" is the relationship between Victor and Igor. Both social misfits, they find themselves appreciated for who they are for the first time in their lives. It soon becomes very clear that Igor is the only real friend Victor has in the world, and that the latter, for all his grandiloquence, needs his lowlier creation more than Igor needs him. The chemistry between Radcliffe and McAvoy is there and is what makes the entire film tick. They both give equally strong performances individually, with McAvoy perfectly capturing the monomaniacal, socially awkward mad genius, a sharp complement to Radcliffe's soulful, loyal, levelheaded partner, but together they are a powerhouse, bringing delightful touches of humor and pathos to an otherwise rather serious film. More than once I felt myself growing teary-eyed. How many horror films can do that?
As to the many negative reviews, I don't believe the critics and I watched the same movie. The pacing and focus was tight, the acting good, the film itself a rather straightforward drama with dashes of horror and action thrown in rather than a mixed bag, and the various subplots, rather than distracting from the main plot, came at the appropriate times, and helped to move it along. The only faults I found were the slight overuse of slow-motion in the action scenes, the rather quirky choice of superimposing anatomical drawings over various characters, and the script's occasionally on-the-nose dialogue (though Radcliffe and McAvoy's sincere performances made them less noticeable), but these are small qualms. Overall, there is much more to like than to dislike.
My only explanation for all the hatred is that "Frankenstein" is a revered novel with a strong literary following; critics came in expecting a remake of the classic monster story, and after they were disappointed at what they saw as a desecration of Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, they took their vengeance out on this film, which never pretended to be an adaptation of that story in the first place. It goes without saying that if you're expecting a faithful facsimile of Shelley's novel or a 360-degree reinvention, you're in for a disappointment, because "Victor Frankenstein" is neither. But if you want to experience a well-acted, entertaining prequel to the classic story, you're in for a real treat.
Review by Meredith Secaur from the Internet Movie Database.