Following the conclusion of The Godfather trilogy in 1990, where would its director Francis Ford Coppola turn to next? A fourth Godfather film following Andy Garcia’s Vincent Corleone? A return to the great social commentary films of the 1970s? No. The answer of course would be to adapt Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic horror novel. Directed by Coppola then, with a screenplay by James V. Hart, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a camp, excessive production, infused with a tinge of madness which shines the spotlight on the underlying sexual tone of Stoker’s novel and runs with it.
Gary Oldman stars as Dracula alongside Winona Ryder as Mina Murray. In a film with questionable supporting performances, Oldman provides the strongest as the title character. Hart’s screenplay trims Stoker’s narrative, providing more screen presence for Oldman. Consequently, this alteration allows more focus on the Shakespearean tragedy that underpins the film, whilst simultaneously alienating some of the supporting ensemble including Anthony Hopkins Professor Van Helsing and Richard E. Grant’s Dr Jack Seward. Ryder provides a good albeit restrained performance as Murray. As a viewer you question the escalating speed in which she falls for Oldman’s Dracula, then again when you consider her other romantic option in Keanu Reeves’ wooden Jonathan Harker, you can’t blame her for jumping ship at such haste. It is worth giving credit to Sadie Frost as Lucy Westenra. In embodying the emerging ‘New Woman’, Frost embraces the voluptuous, camp excessiveness that Coppola’s production drips in.
Throughout the film there is a conflict between science and theology, reflecting Victorian society at the fin de siècle. Coppola seems more interested in pursuing the latter, sucking the life out of the Renfield subplot and reducing Grant’s Seward to a small supporting player. Perhaps this was a stylistic choice, more than anything else. With the focus on theology both Thomas Sanders rich production design and Eiko Ishioka vibrant costume design are allowed to fully breathe. It is also worth noting the films excellent use of shadows and in-camera effects, which effectively translate the uncanny atmosphere of the novel and help visualise Stoker’s narrative structure on screen. Those familiar with the novel will know that it is constructed of diary entries, letters and newspaper articles and it is testament to Coppola’s direction that this does not get lost in translation.
Despite Coppola’s bold direction and the films excellent production values, Reeves and Grant are miscast, though for different reasons. Reeves’ performance as Harker has as much life in it as a piece of cardboard. Like what a crucifix is to a vampire, it’s no mistake that Reeves has stayed away from any roles requiring a 19th century bourgeois English accent since. Grant on the other hand is underutilised. In casting the flamboyant actor in his extroverted production of Dracula, Coppola chooses to push him to the side lines, refusing to unlock his talent, the likes of which were on excellent display in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? Perhaps Grant’s talents would’ve been better displayed as Lucy Westenra, at least then Frost could bring some life to the dull Seward. The story goes that after Ryder dropped out of the part of Mary in The Godfather Part III, Coppola and Ryder held a meeting to clear any bad blood between them. It was at this meeting where Ryder handed Coppola, Hart’s screenplay. True to his fashion Coppola took a chance, in the process reinventing himself and a classic story for a contemporary audience. By no means is Bram Stoker’s Dracula another Godfather or an Apocalypse Now, but like those films Coppola took a gamble, a gamble which in this case paid off.