Gods and Monsters (1998)

D: Bill Condon
S: Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser

Affectionate portrait of director James Whale's final days in 1950s Hollywood based on the speculative novel by Christopher Bram. Openly gay and now ostracised, Whale develops a friendship with his macho, initially homophobic gardener which gives him an opportunity to revisit some moments in his life which have given it meaning. It also inspires his death, which in reality took place under suspicious and still unclear circumstances. Whale is portrayed with intricate skill by Sir Ian McKellen (Richard III), his gardener is also well played by Brendan Fraser (George of the Jungle, Encino Man). Both are superbly matched by Lynn Redgrave in what seems a sort of parodic update of Una O'Connor's roles in the Frankenstein movies, but which, as with many elements of the film, deepens as the story develops.

The film is overlong, with a deficiency of plot which tells early on. It is mostly a succession of conversations between McKellen and Fraser, and though both actors are superb, there is little narrative dynamism. It is mostly concerned with the complex emotional and psychological interplay between the two men, and a rather weak sub-plot dealing with Fraser's personal life involving Lolita Davidovich is wisely abandoned. Director Condon is careful to avoid the cliches of the biopic though. He uses flashbacks almost subliminally to reinforce the emotional resonance of a particular moment rather than provide exposition. It is very much about the present, and concerns itself with how the relationship between the two men (and the woman) reveals what we need to know to understand Whale rather than assume the traditional recounting of historical facts will do so.

As an actor's piece though, it is fascinating. McKellen presents a rounded and believable interpretation of the famous director, capturing nuances of his arrogance and angst which make him both sympathetic and appropriately monstrous. The film constantly draws parallels between Whale and Frankenstein's monster, and though a delicate process of empathy and transference, this idea of self is eventually brought to bear upon Fraser, who concludes the film as a husband and father passing the lesson of tolerance on to another generation. These allusions are not subtle, and the film tends to overstatement and sentimentality, but it does effectively convey the impression of deep feeling for Whale's own story and an honest attempt to do him tribute without turning him into a symbol for gay rights. Along with Brian Gilbert's Wilde, this is an interesting if not entirely successful attempt to use homosexual characters for genuine drama rather than contrived Philadelphia and In & Out type flag waving. It is also a fairly interesting portrait of a creative personality which should satisfy film buffs with its bitchy anti-Hollywood humour and awareness of how Whale's films are now received.

The climax of the film does not really work, though it raises a series of interesting questions which it allows the viewer to speculate upon. It does manage to cast a human complexion upon itself with Redgrave's reaction to Whale's demise, a touching moment which perhaps is more affecting than the epilogue upon which our emotional response is supposed to depend.

Gods and Monsters is not necessarily quite as great a film as it seems to hope to be, but it certainly showcases at least one genuinely great performance and features several others of note. It is interesting, it is watchable and it is sincere, which is more than can be said for many contemporary films. Yet it is not the holy grail that many critics made it out to be and should be approached with due caution by casual viewers uncertain of what to expect.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.