Gods and Monsters (1998)

Written and Directed by Bill Condon, based on the novel Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram
Starring Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave, Lolita Davidovich, Kevin J. O'Connor

My Advice: Wait and Rent It.

What seemingly intends to be a daring experiment in cinematic biography denigrates into a mess of dream sequences and mini-flashbacks that left me more confused about the subject of the film than before I arrived.

It's the fifties and James Whale's (McKellen) career is over, partly due to studio interference in his last opus, but mostly due to the fact he is openly homosexual.  Sure, a lot of his peers are homosexual also, but they have the "decency" to hide it and not wind up in the papers.  Not Whale.  He flaunts it and loves doing so.  Then when he comes back from the hospital after a stroke, he finds a new gardener (Fraser) in his employ, and decides this young man should be his last conquest.

The biography portion of this film is told in fits and starts, with very little told in actual flashbacks. Instead, most comes through McKellen's dialogue with either Fraser or another admirer (Jack Plotnick).  This is explained by Whale's stroke, which has left his memories and emotions at the mercy of  a nervous system that does not want to behave.  Every time he closes his eyes, he tells us, thousands of images come to him.  It's an interesting approach, to have the story told this way, with us the audience at the mercy of Whale's memories as well.  It's also notable how the film parallels Whale's own Frankenstein, with the creator being constantly against the one he is creating/created.  The cleverness gets stretched even thinner as Fraser's character becomes a weird amalgam for Whale's old love from the war (Todd Babcock), Boris Karloff (Jack Betts in the elder incarnation) and the Monster himself. 

Where the film excels is in the actor playing James Whale.  McKellen gives an outstanding performance, ranging from an aging and mischievious lech (a party for Princess Margaret he attends is too, too funny) to an artist who realizes that his true instrument of actualizing his art, his mind, is fading.  The range of the role is perfect for McKellen and he helps hold all of this together.  Also assisting is Redgrave as the German housekeeper, Hanna, who provides wonderfully understated comic relief as she bemoans the fact her "master" will spend eternity in hell for his sins of the flesh.  Where the film falls a little short is the preoccupation with Whale's lust for his young gardener. All in all, the film is so convoluted that it unfortunately becomes merely a vehicle for McKellen's talent, which is nothing to sneeze at, but the sum could have been so much more.

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