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A historical drama about famed director James Whale (Ian McKellen), Gods and Monsters finds Whale primarily in his last years, living relatively modestly in 1950s Hollywood. A heavy emphasis is placed on his homosexuality and his complex relationship with his young male gardener, Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser).
Gods and Monsters is an unusual film in that although it's not very plot heavy, there is little feeling of a lack of substance. It's really a personality study, but a very deep, multifaceted look at Whale, Boone and to a lesser extent, Whale's domestic helper, Hanna (Lynn Redgrave). As such, the film largely hinges on its performances, which couldn't be better.
Fraser is perhaps the most impressive, as the tenor of his role is very different than most of the material he's tackled over the years. He never fails to sell his nuanced character, who is something of a lower-class enigma with a clearly troubled past and a desire for a simpler future, but who hardly knows how to express or achieve what he desires. The description is almost a perfect reflection of Whale, as well, as we come to realize. Of course McKellen and Redgrave are good, too, but their roles are more along the lines of some of their past fine work.
Echoing the parallel between Boone and Whale's histories and dispositions, Whale's life is shown as being deeply mired in the themes of his two Frankenstein films, even though he is shown as publicly wanting to play them down. Whale is something of a cross between Colin Clive's Dr. Frankenstein, Ernest Thesiger's campy Dr. Pretorius and Boris Karloff's sympathetic monster, enjoying the role of creator as much as the simple pleasures of food and a smoke, and ultimately desiring friendship rather than forlorn loneliness in his twilight years. Whale's loss of his creation on The Road Back (1937), from which he temporarily recovered his composure, and the perceived "monstrosity" of his sexual orientation and eccentricities began a slow process of alienation from the milieu he loved at one time. Like the Monster seeking emotional recompense, especially in the face of imminent destruction in the wake of a stroke, Whale attempts to latch on to whatever intimacy he can find from others, and ultimately expresses an embrace of death over living.
Although the historicity of the film may be questionable on some accounts, it's important to remember that the film, although a historical drama, is still fiction, and many changes are by way of normal "literary license", designed to underscore more abstract points about Whale's life and character.
Director Bill Condon nicely inserts select scenes from Whale's past, including his experience in World War I, which informed his films such as Journey's End (1930), and a wonderful recreation of Whale filming a scene from Bride of Frankenstein (1935). We also see an almost amusingly truncated version of the latter and some typical peanut gallery remarks showing how Whale's work was apt to be misunderstood. Carter Burwell's beautiful, understated music is also worth noting. My only small complaint about the film is that I would have like the music to appear more frequently than it did.
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