Gods and Monsters

(1998) *** R
105 min. Lions Gate. Director: Bill Condon. Cast: Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave, Lolita Davidovich, Kevin O'Connor.

In a year of notable biopics about gay artists - such as Wilde and Love is the Devil--Gods and Monsters might be expected to fade into the background. But director Bill Condon's ode to gay film director James Whale has a secret weapon: Sir Ian McKellen.

McKellen stars as Whale in this speculative tale of the weeks preceding the death of the Frankenstein filmmaker, and the performance is already generating very sensible Oscar buzz. Whale--who made no secret of his sexual orientation--helmed not only Frankenstein but also its notably campier sequel The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and several others before an early retirement brought on by his own dwindling control over the product of his work. Sadly, Gods and Monsters offers only the most cursory glimpse of Whale at work (though the set of The Bride of Frankenstein is lovingly reconstructed).

Condon instead focuses on the fictionalized relationship between Whale and new gardener Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser), circa 1957. The two develop a wary friendship, interrupted by Whale's debilitating post-stroke health and his nosy housekeeper Hannah (Lynn Redgrave, in fine form). It seems that the stroke has set Whale's mind crackling overtime, causing hallucinations, nightmares, and vivid flashbacks. As his spiraling health sends him into depression, Whale begins to fixate ever more on the heterosexual Boone. A complicated dance of death ensues, leading the viewer to ask which is the creator, and which the monster.

Fraser is a smart choice here, as the flat-topped, hulking, "monster" unwittingly stalking Whale. Fraser brings subtle humor and sufficient poignancy to the simple, lost Boone. If the noble, overprotective housemaid character is a bit stale, Redgrave refuses to let you notice, embodying her exasperated love.

It is McKellen, however, who lifts the picture above the level of a curiosity. After all, it hasn't been that long since the release of Love and Death in Long Island, a similarly engrossing picture starring the neophyte Jason Priestly as a straight actor and respected Brit John Hurt as a lovesick writer. McKellen's complex, tortured, maddened artist--alone and no longer capable of creating art--seeks a final emotional and artistic satisfaction in playing God; his searching glare may just find you.

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