The James Whale biopic Gods and Monsters sputters and stalls, but it’s roadworthy enough to serve as a vehicle for Ian McKellen’s dazzling, old-school performance. Mc-Kellen plays the director of Frankenstein and Bride of as a man who’s lived inside his invented persona for so long that it seems to have been encoded in his DNA. Artifice becomes McKellen as it became Whale, or at least McKellen’s version of Whale.
Based on Christopher Bram’s novel Father of Frankenstein, Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters is a fictionalized account of Whale’s last few months. (I leave it to the Whale buffs to sort out the facts from the fantasy.) Long retired from filmmaking, Whale lives a life of consummate taste and loneliness, attended to by his faithful housekeeper (Lynn Redgrave) and occasionally visited by his former boyfriend (David Dukes). The housekeeper believes that her Mr. Jimmy will burn in hell for his homosexuality; the ex-boyfriend, a Hollywood insider, is embarrassed by Whale’s refusal to keep his queerness a secret.
Whale has had a stroke that leaves him subject to memory storms; he’s gripped involuntarily by visual images of the past. This loss of control over his own brain makes poor Whale suicidal, but it’s of great convenience to the filmmaker, who uses it as an opportunity to cram in back story, most of it involving Whale’s experience as a soldier in World War I. It was in the trenches that Whale, who grew up in the slums of England, found a fleeting experience of true love with an upper-class 18-year-old: “He didn’t mind that I was a working-class boy imitating his betters.”
Condon gets maximum mileage from these blasts from the past, collaging, for example, the gunfire lighting up the sky over no-man’s-land with a clip of the lightning storm from Frankenstein, or cutting between a vision of Whale’s first great love and the hunky gardener who becomes the object of his desire in the last weeks of his life. Most of Gods and Monsters is focused on the frustrating but strangely tender relationship that develops between Whale and the gardener, a well-muscled innocent named Clayton (Brendan Fraser). Clayton, who grew up poor and had father problems just like Whale, finds himself sympathetic to the old man and immensely gratified by the attention lavished on him. But the discovery that Whale is gay— and therefore lusts after his body— throws Clayton into a confusion of terror, anger, and disgust.
There’s a hint of Lolita (the Kubrick version) in these scenes of forbidden desire in the ’50s— the sophisticated, highly literate foreigner enamored of a healthy, minimally educated, but disarmingly direct American who has no sexual interest in him but is captivated by the way power turns round and about. The relationship is touching, painful, revealing, and often funny, which is true of the film as a whole as well. There’s a darkly camp scene in which Whale takes Clayton to a garden party given by George Cukor to honor Princess Margaret. “He’s never met a princess before, only old queens,” says Whale of Clayton, while the closeted Cukor squirms in fury and embarrassment.
Whale called Frankenstein a comedy about death. The same could be said of Gods and Monsters. It just takes place on a slightly more earthbound level.