's superb "Gods and Monsters" and star Ian McKellen
-- playing "Bride of Frankenstein" director James Whale as an elegant but forgotten genius -- should ride some of the best reviews of the year to lucrative limited-release business and almost certain awards consideration.
In the same league as "Heavenly Creatures" and "Ed Wood", the literate, challenging Lions Gate Films-distributed drama is based on Christopher Bram
's novel "Father of Frankenstein". Although there are some deliciously comic moments and marvelously witty lines, even the presence of Brendan Fraser
won't sell this unrated but cinematically polished gem to the masses.
It's ironic, because unlike Ed Wood, Whale achieved immortality of a kind in his own lifetime. The English-born director came to Hollywood at the dawn of the talkies and made "Frankenstein" with Boris Karloff
, as well as "The Invisible Man" and "Showboat". While most of his films were made in one decade, Whale settled in Pacific Palisades, Calif., had a reputation for being openly gay and eventually drowned in his own pool in 1957.
Certainly some liberties with the truth have been taken. But the storytelling is so focused on the richly imagined characters that one is thoroughly, wonderfully oblivious, trapped and spellbound by McKellen's feats of acting magic. Much credit also goes to Fraser, playing an ex-Marine gardener who befriends the ailing Whale, leading to an intense relationship that mirrors the filmmaker's own extraordinary horror classics.
The title refers to scientists and their creations, directors and their films, fathers and their sons, old queens and their young lovers. Alas, Whale is suffering from numerous physical-psychological maladies after a stroke and breakup with a longtime companion (David Dukes). Indeed, he fears he's losing his mind as memories of his poor youth and glamorous moviemaking days come to him unbidden.
While we know he lusts after quiet, gentle Clayton Boone (Fraser), the big lug doesn't have a clue, although he's nervous when artist Whale asks him to be a model. Clearly shaken by his experiences as a soldier and starting out a lot like his employer, the heterosexual Boone is seduced by Whale's fame, although his bar buddies, including Lolita Davidovich
as an unencouraging ex-lover, laugh at "Bride of Frankenstein" on TV.
Propelled by Carter Burwell
's excellent score, with a little help from Franz Waxman
, the film dreamily moves between Whale's memories -- he fought in World War I and tells Boone a particularly ghoulish story -- and his sheltered life in a stately residence. The erudite but stunningly beautiful film cannily intertwines themes of defying nature, dawning intelligence and regeneration, with Whale's worsening madness leading him to want the unthinkable from Boone.
Along with McKellen's tour de force and Fraser's best work to date, "Gods" boasts an outstanding performance by Lynn Redgrave
as Whale's stern but devoted housekeeper. From the sensual and subtle widescreen cinematography and sets to the great makeup and costumes, including recreations of the "Bride" laboratory set, the film is an all-around triumph.
GODS AND MONSTERS
Lions Gate Films
Showtime and Flashpoint present
In association with BBC Films
A Regent Entertainment production
In association with Gregg Fienberg
Writer-director: Bill Condon
Producers: Paul Colichman, Gregg Fienberg
, Mark R. Harris
Executive producers: Clive Barker
, Stepen P. Jarchow, David Forrest, Beau Rogers
Director of photography: Stephen M. Katz
Production designer: Richard Sherman
Editor: Virginia Katz
Costume designer: Bruce Finlayson
Music: Carter Burwell
James Whale: Ian McKellen
Clayton Boone: Brendan Fraser
Hanna: Lynn Redgrave
Betty: Lolita Davidovich
Harry: Kevin J. O'Connor
David Lewis: David Dukes
Running time -- 105 minutes
No MPAA rating