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Gods and Monsters

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Gods and Monsters

Starring: Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser
Director: Bill Condon
Rated: R
RunTime: 105 Minutes
Release Date: November 1998
Genres: Drama, Independent, Gay/Lesbian

*Also starring: Lynn Redgrave, Lolita Davidovich, Kevin J. O'Connor, David Dukes, Brandon Kleyla, Rosalind Ayres

Review by Jerry Saravia
No Rating Supplied

I know very little about the late James Whale, except that he was a fine director and he was very open about his homosexuality. His films also reflected his way of life, and his need for companionship. These ideas about Whale come through in the well-acted, if disjointed "Gods and Monsters," a fictional story of Whale's last days before mysteriously dying in a swimming pool in 1967.

The exceptional Ian McKellen plays the silver-haired, colorfully attired James Whale, living in luxury at his house with his harsh housekeeper (played by an unrecognizable Lynn Redgrave). He's a forgotten movie director who revels in the glorious Hollywood days of the past, and is immersed in painting and in the painful memories of serving in the war.

One day, a new gardener named Clayton (Brendan Fraser) begins working on Whale's lawn, and Whale immediately becomes transfixed by his physique. He offers his pool as a welcome respite from work and asks Clayton to pose for his drawings. Clayton is a dim-witted but kind man who is a little slow to understand Whale's advances and intentions, even when asked to remove his shirt.

"Gods and Monsters" is a smooth piece of entertainment, yet it is unimaginatively directed by writer-director Bill Condon. Whale's nightmares are filmed in Gothic blue tones that undermine any sense of real drama or tension in his own life. There are the silhouetted figures against a night sky (shades of Whale's own Frankenstein pictures) that say little if anything about the man.

The rest of the picture is too stilted and dry; moments that require some sense of movement are too inert. I admire restraint, but Condon could have framed certain scenes in more interesting ways. The dinner party is especially awkward, where Whale reunites with his old-time friends, Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester. The actors who portray these horror legends are convincing, yet we barely see enough of them.

Though the filmmaking lacks pizzaz, the performances do not. Ian McKellen is a remarkable actor and brings such an uncommon blend of sensitivity, wryness, wit, and nobility to James Whale - thereby evoking the man's own personal demons. He also brings a delicacy to the man (his looks, gestures, etc.) that makes us want to watch his every move. At the very least, Condon had the good sense to feature this titanic actor in nearly every scene.

Brendan Fraser can't compete with McKellen, but he does bring something to Clayton that makes us sympathize with him. Still, it is difficult to believe Fraser as a dumb, hulking man who doesn't catch on to Whale's charms and subtleties. And Clayton's brief relationship with a waitress (thanklessly played by Lolita Davidovich) drags the narrative and becomes unnecessary in context.

Lynn Redgrave is nutty and uproarious as the housekeeper - a servant to Whale for almost twenty years. She sees through Whale and resents his routine advances towards young males. Her reactions to a nearly nude male reporter in one scene is hilarious to watch, and I liked her comments about "Bride of Frankenstein": "Your film is not my cup of tea".

"Gods and Monsters" wants to be a celebration of life and art. This theme, however, doesn't resonate with the richness or importance of the similar "Love and Death on Long Island" or "Ed Wood." What one does take away from this movie is McKellen's delicately sublime, incredibly understated portrayal of the emotionally ailing James Whale. He shows us that his own monsters were not his creations.

Copyright 1998 Jerry Saravia

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