WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: James Whale, the revered, retired and increasingly frail director of the famous ‘Frankenstein’ films, looks back on his life and loves under the disapproving gaze of his severe housekeeper. His young gardener agrees to sit to be painted by Whale and is fascinated by the man, but remains unsure of his motives.
Bill Condon’s film, from Christopher Bram’s novel, is an intimate affair, focusing mainly on the last few weeks in the life of troubled film director James Whale (played by Ian McKellen). Whale has survived a tough, working-class English upbringing and the displeasure of his father to become a man of fine tastes and vision – he directed the first film version of Show Boat, after all – but all anyone really wants to know about, including a gauche young student who comes to interview him, is the schlocky Frankenstein films he turned out.
Naturally, this is the last thing Whale himself wants to discuss so he makes his own fun by making the poor young man strip (not that, as it happens, he particularly minds); however, when Whale suffers a stroke it becomes clear that he is seriously ill, and we find out that only strong medication is keeping his mind from being flooded with a hundred thoughts at once.
Despite his infirmity, Whale becomes interested in his gardener, an ex-marine called Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser). Boone is avowedly heterosexual yet the pair strike up an awkward friendship when Boone consents to be painted by the director. However, the portrait is destined never to be completed, either because Boone is freaked out by the old man’s lurid stories, or Whale is irritated by the youngster’s brashness. Overseeing them both is stern East European maid Hanna (Lynn Redgrave), who frets for her master’s soul as much as for the propriety of the goings-on within the house.
The description of the film as ‘intimate’ works on two levels: the film details both characters’ love lives closely, giving them and the viewer insights into both homosexual and heterosexual love; also, the film for the most part feels quite small, spent largely within Whale’s house, although there are occasional flashbacks to Whale’s life as a boy, as a soldier in the (so-called) Great War, and even a few recreations of the filming of Bride of Frankenstein, plus an entertaining visit to a party thrown by George Cukor and patronised by Princess Margaret, where Whale embarrasses the still-working (so still in the closet) director and faces his own monsters when brought face-to-face with Boris Karloff and other stars from his films.
As the film progresses, attempts are made to link the theme of Frankenstein with the director’s own predicament: ‘Alone: bad. Friend: Good.’ These are largely successful, and the tale Whale tells of his lover Barnett being snagged on barbed wire, his body visible for weeks after his death, is very moving, but it does mean that the film verges on being talky for much of its running time, concentrating on the characters’ feelings rather than their actions.
Accordingly, it is vital that the acting is of good quality and Ian McKellen is gloriously fruity as Whale, leering over young flesh with a keen eye whilst retaining the frailties of his situation. Redgrave is also excellent, and whilst Fraser is comparatively lumpy (his explanation about why he is a marine in name only fails to move as much as Whale’s stories) he does everything that is asked of him and is convincing enough when he finally rejects both Whale’s advances and his drastic request.
Gods and Monsters is a fine little film which tells a touching and finally tragic story of a man whose cult success overshadowed the films he regarded as his classics. As long as you don’t expect anything more of it, and as long as you realise exactly what you’re letting yourself in for, you are likely to find this both informative and enjoyable. Even if it’s not your thing, Sir Ian’s performance alone makes it worth a watch.