March 11, 2018


(I often dub Netflix series "films.")

"The Frankenstein Chronicles" is the Brits at the top of their dramaturgical game, showing off. The FC is a fascinating, intelligent, somewhat contemplative, sophisticated, nuanced, suspenseful, imaginative examination of the first half of nineteenth-century Christian England (pre-Darwin!) where sickness, disease and early death run rampant. Religion, superstition, the occult and science all attempt their cures. But what everyone really wants, then as now, is immortality, to live forever, to come back from the dead, to see our loved ones again. Mary Shelley herself is a character: "Mightn't we break the laws of God in order to see our loved ones again? What wouldn't you do to see your loved ones again?" Um, that's not how we see our loved ones again. God wants us to see our loved ones again. Love God and neighbor and we will see our loved ones again. Only God can give, "take" and give life again.


The world of yesteryear is so well created, the diction so tight, the research of the times so in-depth ("science" is correctly called "natural philosophy"), the acting so superb, the story and dramatization engrossing. Sean Bean (extraordinary acting here--that man is so good at rich, manly emoting when he understands the part) plays a tough lawman who is looking for a body-snatcher who supplies bodies for Frankenstein-like experiments. Children are also the body-snatcher's victims, which makes it all the more abhorrent.

The characters are deeply Christian. Christianity is simply assumed and permeating the culture. And not stupid, superficial, naive, mean Christians (as often portrayed in American cinema set in any time period, often anachronistically. What do I mean? I mean Americans, in their often ahistorical and feverish progressivism can find it hard to reach back in time and plumb a different mentality. The portrayals of Christians [really caricatures] wind up looking like Jerry Falwell is the representative of true Christianity of every time and place). Not so in FC. FC's Christians are a mixed bag, a cross-section of society itself: kind Christians; charitable Christians; wealthy, socially-conscious Christians who care for the poor; Christians who are trying; Christians who are struggling with faith; Christians who take up their cross;  hypocritical Christians, or Christians who just pay lip service to God because it's respectable to do so or there's really no other worldview circulating to choose from.


I really must commend those enigmatic Brits on this ability they have to suspend all their current-day ethea, assumptions and prejudices and totally enter a past world. This is also done in an astonishing way in "Call the Midwife," a BBC series based on the true-life reminiscences of a young nurse mid-wife working with Anglican nuns in the poor East End of London in the 1950's--where most births were home births. The series is extremely pro-life, wherein everyone is rooting for the baby and the Mom no matter how dire the circumstances. Abortion is illegal and rarely even thought of as an option. Abortion would be an affront to the hope of these hardscrabble citizens of the realm who work hard and love hard for a better future for their progeny. "Call the Midwife" is a deeply joyous celebration of human life, human possibilities and human thriving in the midst of hardship. It is a tribute to the human spirit and to the filmmakers who, even today, can re-imagine such a beautiful, kindly, more human world. But I digress.

FC is filled with organic intrigue. Just so well performed. Lots of bio-ethical questions that are only MORE pertinent today--now that we have so much bio-tech.

Sean Bean's character is the equivalent of a modern day detective (representing the magistrate's office), a haunted man who doggedly rescues women and children almost as a kind of penance for having lost his own wife and child (a baby girl) due to his "carelessness." (I never quite figured out what his "carelessness" was. Perhaps passing on the syphilis from which he suffers?) We also witness the creation of the modern day police force, or "bobbies," in 1829, named for Robert Peel, the Home Secretary.


FC is definitely dark--figuratively and literally--poorly lit (a huge peeve of mine) mostly by lanterns, and we can almost feel the grime and dankness of the pre-Victorian city rising off the screen. There is a fair amount of blood and dismemberment and throat-slashing. But not gratuitous in my estimation. FC's core deals with life and death and the body, and it palpably "goes there." This is an incredibly fascinating Theology of the Body work with room for endless discussion. I am still marveling at it in my mind. There is so much to unpack.

GOD is all over this film. He is woven in everywhere as a character, as a force, as a nemesis to be defeated or a deity to be trusted. He is in every cell of this living, breathing film. This is profoundly religious art, not just because it re-presents the vibrant, bygone faith of millions, but you can hear and feel and see (three of the five senses) the filmmakers grappling with the postmodern supposed "absence of God," and yet, the tenets of postmodernity are not imposed or overlaid on this fine work. It is the perennial cri de coeur that is the heartbeat of "The Frankenstein Chronicles." I would love to meet the minds behind this filmic, metaphysical expedition that breaks through the fourth wall of pure virtuality in a return to the body, the body, the body. And it is not a disgust or hatred of the body or its so-called limitations, even the limitation of death. The creators of FC know we can't be fully human without taking the body with us, without being our bodies into the next life, the afterlife, any life. They are dancing all around the ANSWER. They are "not far from the kingdom of God." Well done, as the Brits themselves say.

I wanted to scream at the screen: "See? You Brits know how to do this! You know how to pray! (The Anglican nuns in "Call the Midwife" praying and living from a faith-stance is also exquisite.) You know how to ask all the right questions! You know how to be moral and memento mori and think about a judgment and a final reckoning and that it's not just impolite and nasty to murder people and cut them up and treat them like raw material for research--there's a bigger, cosmically accountable dimension to it all! Perhaps FC is a form of England, "Mary's Dowry," reclaiming its God-heritage, at least and for now in a make-believe world? You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one. 


Over and over we hear this phrase in FC: "A world without God," which has several layers. But of course, there is really no such thing as a world without God, just as a fish dreaming of a world without water is to dream of the impossible, or rather it means his certain death--something very bad for him. "A world without God" is understood by the believing characters as a horror.

Today, the English are such hardcore atheists. It seems their atheism has morphed from the empiricists to the economists to the evolutionists to the survivors of World War II. They are known for their brilliance, wit, sarcasm, pessimism, "stiff upper lip," and a certain coldness--so much so that the government of England has recently instituted a "Ministry of Loneliness" for all the old people and others living in social isolation! But isn't that the sweetest and most realistic thing ever? Calling the ailment and problem by its actual name? Is that because England has a female PM?


But England has a rich and beautiful Christian history--its iterations and developments stretching back all the way to the first century A.D. The English OWN the Bible. The Scriptures are still embedded everywhere in their speech whether they even realize it or not. When I watch British TV/films, the dialogue is often LITTERED with Scripture. So many common English expressions come straight of out the beautiful and poetic language of the King James Bible. The Bible is a touchstone for the true, good and beautiful in English culture (along with Shakespeare who also drew on the Bible--a double whammy). The British know they cannot just throw those words, English words--and their meanings--away. England is enmeshed with God and His Word. She just needs to rediscover Him--not by going backwards, but by going forwards, because the Word of God stands forever, and there is much yet to be brought to fulfillment in it!


FC, like the original "Frankenstein" is a kind of science fiction playground to examine God and human destiny. Frankenstein/FC is no suicidal deathwish or fever dream of despair! It is a fierce desire and will for life without end--but accomplished by disastrous human machinations. But even by crossing lines and trashing ethics and breaking laws human and will not succeed. It hath not the power. And not only that: Frankenstein/FC is not just about humans attempting to overcome death, it's also human beings attempting to usurp God. But the "god" these scientists aspire to be is not even a benign God, but a despot and a puppeteer.

In the midst of all the destructive, desecrating horror, there is tender love between lovers, spouses, parents and children. But is there also the creeping sense (not on the part of the believing characters but on the part of the storytellers) that perhaps that is the only love that exists (sans God)?

The film ends with the ocean. Does our main character lose faith--and the mystery of something as large as the ocean is all that is left? Does the ocean stand in for the "primordial soup" from which we all supposedly sprang (and which "restores life" in the film)? Or is the ocean the vastness of God Himself? Does the ocean signal that the search for God continues?

"Lead me to the rock that is higher than I." --Psalm 61


--Brave police, valiant priests, mad-scientist villains!

--FC is a long meditation. With lots of action.

--The moral and religious imagination is on full, full display here.

--Abortion is not a good thing in FC. At one point, abortion is correctly countered by a beautiful, intelligent young Christian woman who disagrees and says: "Suffer the little children to come unto me."

--"Beware the beast." Yes, beware the beast (Revelation 20:2). (There are occasional overtones of the occult leading up to...?) What/who is "the beast"? The "resurrected"? The devil? The monsters who tamper with human life (i.e., Nazi-scientist types)? The body-snatcher(s)?

--"There is no God. As soon as you grasp that, anything is possible."

--"They died for science. I make no apologies. I will make any sacrifice for the work." [No, you murdered them for science.]

--"God will judge you for this!"

--At a certain point, a character is told that there is no God. He is asked if he saw God in his "near-death" experience. He did not, which seems to cause him some doubt. But let's remember the unnaturalness of his "near-death" experience. (I hope I'm not being like Dan Quayle talking to Murphy Brown here.) :)

--There is a twisty, twisted, almost-ending twist that could have been the ending, but it is not. "Life" goes on. It gets a little draggy at first at this point, with tons of dream sequences that we keep getting jolted out of ourselves: Oopsy! It's a dream again! Now where the heck were we in the story? This is the only flaw in FC, as well as some long, silent, visually dark scenes where we're on a kind of "pause."

--One of the best screen portrayals of the afterlife/heaven: "Tree Of Life"? "Heaven Is for Real"? "Miracles From Heaven"? I can't recall. Shows the interwoven tapestry of people known and barely known in our lives.

--Suggested book: The glorious and gloriously readable "Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People."

Psalm 61
To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. Of David.
Hear my cry, O God,
    listen to my prayer;
from the end of the earth I call to you
    when my heart is faint.
Lead me to the rock
    that is higher than I,
for you have been my refuge,
    a strong tower against the enemy.
Let me dwell in your tent forever!
    Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings! Selah
For you, O God, have heard my vows;
    you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.
Prolong the life of the king;
    may his years endure to all generations!
May he be enthroned forever before God;
    appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him!
So will I ever sing praises to your name,
    as I perform my vows day after day.

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