26 August 2018 | Cineanalyst
I've been seeking out a bunch of Frankenstein films after re-reading Mary Shelley's novel, and I count ones such as "Rowing with the Wind" to be part of that. It's one of a few semi-historical movies to self-reflexively be about the creation of the story, which itself is about creation. "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), "Gothic" (1986), "Haunted Summer" (1988), "Frankenstein Unbound" (1990) and "Mary Shelley" (2017) also feature the author of "Frankenstein." In this one, the creature of Shelley's Frankenstein comes to life, or rather to apparition, and haunts her through the deaths of those in her life, which is also what happens in the novel to Victor Frankenstein. None of the aforementioned films I've seen managed to accomplish such a feat: of integrating the fictional and historical myths, of the doppelgänger of creature and creator, and of placing within the milieu of 19th-century Romanticism.
This is the second unorthodox Spanish production of a Frankenstein film that I've seen, as well--the other being "The Spirit of the Beehive" (1973)--and while they approach the story in different ways and by different media (this one, by writing; the other through the 1931 film), they are both two of the most complexly layered and beautiful films to portray the monster. Even though, like others, I viewed the butchered Miramax cut, which reportedly eliminates a fourth of the film, "Rowing with the Wind" is a far more intelligent conception than the opium-induced madhouse of "Gothic," which offers only the simplest readings of the book and isn't even especially gothic itself. It was made at Gaddesden Place, which is of Palladian architecture, whereas the relevant scenes of "Rowing with the Wind" look as though they could've been filmed at Lord Byron's Villa Diodati. And even "Gothic" is better than "Frankenstein Unbound," which treats the Frankenstein story as an historical event and reduces Mary Shelley's authorship to that of a reporter taking liberties with the facts. "Gothic" reduced Mary's inspiration to her dead children, and while "Rowing with the Wind" is more encompassing than that, it even handles that part more poetically. The scenes of the monster approaching Mary's son William (also the name of Victor's brother) is one of the more haunting here--especially so for those who've read the book and seen the similar scene of the little girl in Universal's 1931 adaptation.
I also like the beginning shots of a boat in an icy sea, which recalls Captain Walton's search in "Frankenstein" for the Northwest Passage, but also through a recitation of Lord Byron's poem "Darkness" situates this film's beginning in the Year Without a Summer of 1816--when by Lake Geneva, Byron, Mary, her then-lover-and-would-be-husband Percy Shelley and John Polidori decided to compete in writing ghost stories. From that night, Polidori wrote "The Vampyre" and, more famously, Mary began the creation of what would become the novel "Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus." Percy Shelley's "Wake the Serpent Not" is also later recited, and the film is full of allusions to the Romantic era in which Mary wrote her masterpiece, including in the classical and romantic musical score and, most impressively, the cinematography, especially of nature. Such lush photography of natural landscapes is especially appropriate given the volcanic winter of 1816 and later Romantic settings--complete with the sailing motif. Even the interior views, including the giraffe in Lord Byron's Venetian residence, and the costumes--Elizabeth Hurley in a men's suit, for instance--contain sumptuous visuals.
Although Elsa Lanchester and Gavin Gordon will probably always remain by favorite film Mary and Lord Byron for their one scene in "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), Lizzy McInnerny and Hugh Grant do well here. Certainly, this is a much more developed Mary than I've seen in the other versions, and Grant affects Lord Byron's limp well and provides a more refined variation on the caddish roles he'd later become well-known for. This is also the best Percy I've seen, although, of all the things Miramax could've cut out, they seem to have left in (at least I hope so) all of the many foreshadowing references to Mr. Shelley's inability to swim. The English Polidori, however, seems out of place as played by a Spaniard. And, one of the least interesting things to me regarding this film is its place at the beginning of Grant and Hurley's real-life romance.
I don't care much for the slow speech delivery of the creature, either, and the picture does appear somewhat dull and disjointed at times--likely as a result of the Miramax cuts. Someday, I'd like to see the complete version, but even as it is, this is Romantically gorgeous and an intelligently self-reflexive integration of two stories of creation and horror. In one scene, after facing so much death already throughout her life, Mary states, "I do not want to see a creature born that is destined to die." In the case of her novel's creature, this wish has been fulfilled. Like the one in "Rowing with the Wind," Shelley's monster has taken on a life of its own. Surpassing its 200th anniversary in 2018, it remains very much alive.