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Review: 'Gods and Monsters' flirts poignantly with death

Web posted on:
Wednesday, December 02, 1998 5:28:45 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Bill Condon's "Gods and Monsters" is an example of a reasonably challenging film that doesn't really accomplish what it sets out to do, but is nevertheless thoughtfully-conceived and contains a couple of highly enjoyable performances that keep it afloat. Its charms are wholly unique, and the structure is unexpectedly playful at times.

This is the kind of movie that we should be endorsing when we're moved to tell friends, "It wasn't fantastic, but you should see it anyway." Instead, that kind of recommendation usually leads to something like "Practical Magic." Minor pleasures can still contain flashes of brilliance, you know.

Clip: "I'm not married"
Video clip: 2.1Mb QuickTime
Clip: "The clinical term"
Video clip: 2Mb QuickTime

"Gods and Monsters" is very loosely based on the last days of 1930s film director James Whale (played, in the best performance of his screen career, by Ian McKellen), an un-closeted homosexual who was responsible for directing such memorably off-kilter films as "Frankenstein," "The Bride of Frankenstein," "Show Boat," and "The Invisible Man."

Whale was a hugely popular filmmaker during his time, his sexuality forever remaining an industry secret.

But, after falling off the Hollywood radar screen in the late '40s, he chose withdrawal, staying holed up in his beautiful Los Angeles home, grinding away the years by painting portraits and chasing the occasional young boy. He was found floating in his swimming pool one sunny morning in 1957, yet another casualty of the inevitable fall from the top of the Hollywood heap.

McKellen tremendous as James Whale

Though all of that's factual, it's really just a set-up for a fictional pondering of what might have happened to Whale near the end, when a stroke caused his short-circuited brain to continually revisit memories, not only of his years as a filmmaker, but also of the horror he experienced in the trenches during World War I.

Whale, we're told, had a lover in his outfit who was killed in battle, and visions of the man now haunt him as he tries to come to terms with the lost possibilities of his past.

McKellen gives a tremendously shaded performance, reveling in Whale's foppish naughtiness while periodically slipping into sad, dreamy states of recollection. Whale's Old Queen mannerisms unfold quietly; you don't get pounded in the head with his elegance.

And McKellen's Whale is not beyond laughing ruefully at his own downfall. He's suffused with grace even as he fears dying. McKellen's work is wonderfully flexible, the kind of thing that fully deserves to be recognized with an Oscar nomination. So you have to figure it won't be.

Whale's sidekick of sorts is a long-suffering German housekeeper named Hannah (Lynn Redgrave), who's been taking care of him for 15 years and now treats him as if they're a married (albeit sex-free) couple.

Redgrave has a few very funny moments when she wrestles with the knowledge of her boss' unrepentant taste for men. Her priest has suggested that Whale is heading straight to hell for his dalliances, and -- though Hannah thinks this is wholly unfair -- she never considers questioning the idea. It's a broad character, and Redgrave sometimes pushes it to the edge of sitcom territory, but she mostly delivers solid work.

Hannah's distaste rises to the top, however, when Whale suddenly takes a fancy to his hunky, fervently heterosexual gardener, a former Marine washout named Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser, also bringing layers of unexpected depth to what might have been a weak role). Clay is a completely fictional character, serving as a sort of springboard into Whale's obsessions, sexual and otherwise.

A tense relationship

At first, Clayton is simply asked to pose for the old man as a model, but, as the nature of Whale's desire makes itself known, the relationship between the two grows increasingly strained. Fraser brings a sweet-tempered, regular-guy vulnerability to Clayton, even though the character gets short-changed to a large degree. His personal background gets relegated to one or two pretty uninteresting scenes with a former girlfriend (played quickly by Lolita Davidovich).

Whale's platonic "courtship" with Clayton is intercut with dream sequences (some of which don't come off that well) and flashbacks that transport us to the sets of the "Frankenstein" films. There are several instances in which Condon tries to draw a parallel between the iconic monster (Whale concocted Boris Karloff's makeup before filming began) and Fraser's hulking object of desire. There's a tenderness in some of the scenes between McKellen and Fraser that just gets muddied by these awkward stabs at a broader kind of depth. The fantasy sequences sometimes confuse things when the film has been purring along nicely without their help.

I know there are people who out there are going to cower when confronted with a movie that deals, to some degree, with homosexual identity. But this is a film about human identity; both Whale and Clayton wrestle with their own perceptions of who they are and where their lives are heading. That Whale can't come out of this intact is all the message I needed.

It's too bad that Condon tried to force more heaviness into the story than it could possibly maintain. Its real pleasures are more subtle than that.

"Gods and Monsters" contains lots of conversation about the nature of longing, some of which happens to be of the man-to-man variety. If that's too "dangerous" a concept for you to handle, please stay at home. Not rated, and I don't really know why. 105 minutes. Produced by Clive Barker!

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