Retro Film Review: Gods and Monsters (1998)

in #filmlast month


When Hollywood deals with its history, most likely protagonists of such films are actors. But even some directors can have personalities and lives colourful enough to be portrayed in biopic. One of those was James Whale, director of classic 1930s horror films. His last days are subject of Gods and Monsters, 1998 drama written and directed by Bill Condon.

The plot, based on Christopher Bram's novel Father of Frankenstein, is set in Hollywood 1957. James Whale (played by Ian McKellen) has retired from making movies and spends most of his time in luxurious mansion run by his faithful Hungarian housekeeper Hannah (played by Lynne Redgrave). Elderly Hannah is devout Catholic and uses every opportunity to express disapproval of Whale's lifestyle. Whale, who used to be one of few openly gay film-makers of his time, used to enjoy company of handsome young men in his house. But he can't enjoy life as he used to do - he is recovering from stroke and suffers from hallucinations. At the same time, young and impoverished Clayton Boone (played by Brendan Fraser) takes the job of Whale's gardener. Boone, a former Marine, is rather naive man who doesn't have a clue about his employer's sexual orientation. This becomes apparent only after Whale asks the young man to pose for him. Boone, although heterosexual, agrees and becomes fascinated with an extraordinary man whose life was full of tragedies and triumphs.

Gods and Monsters is today's best known for Ian McKellen's "Oscar". That was the first instance when openly gay actor won Academy Award for playing openly gay character. These days such achievement isn't as ground-breaking as it could have been in previous decades. The film itself doesn't dwell much on Whale's homosexuality and main focus is on Whale as an artist. By using hallucinations as a tool to explore Whale's troubled past, Condon makes convincing case that Whale's 1930s classic horrors were inspired by his poverty-stricken childhood and unimaginable traumas of WW1 trenches. Whale, at least on the surface, managed to overcome this and become successful film-maker with enough money and influence to enjoy homosexual lifestyle without worrying about social condemnation. Condon is more interested in the way upcoming death affects men in such position. McKellen plays Whale wonderfully, making him into memorable and multi-dimensional character. McKellen's Whale is at same time charming and despicable, going through seamless transformations between refined gentleman and pathetic pervert.

Gods and Monsters is somewhat less successful when it deals with object of Whale's affection. Clayton Boone is supposed to be Whale's counterpart - a man who came from the wrong side of tracks and who is, just like Whale, some sort of outcast. Boone's hairstyle and his muscular body also suggest that he, at least in Whale's mind, could be seen as some kind of Frankenstein monster. Condon's script doesn't convincingly show why Boone suffers from rejection and desire to firmly establish Boone's heterosexuality resulted in few rather unnecessary scenes. Brendan Fraser, on the other hand, tries and succeeds in compensating script flaws by delivering very good acting performance. Lynne Redgrave is also great as a character who serves as comic relief in this otherwise grim and depressing story. The accompanying music by Carter Burwell, influenced by 1930s film scores, is also very good. Richard Sherman's production design manages to recreate 1950s Hollywood, which is great accomplishment considering film's rather minimalist budget. Because of the way it tells a fascinating story and because of the way it gives tribute to the classic works of Seventh Art, Gods and Monsters is a very good film.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on July 26th 2004)

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