Ian McKellen’s brilliant performance as 1930s director James Whale highlights “Gods and Monsters.” Historical Hollywood fiction drawn from Christopher Bram’s book “Father of Frankenstein” doesn’t always convince, particularly in the last lap. But it’s an engrossing, unusual, imaginatively executed bit of psychological gamesmanship nonetheless. Director-scenarist Bill Condon’s first-class production will need good reviews and strong marketing to cross over beyond gay and arthouse auds.
Brit-born Whale’s career took off brilliantly in the talkies’ first decade, starting with the transcription of his stage hit “Journey’s End,” then including the first “Waterloo Bridge” and “Show Boat.” His name was made, however — to a certain personal chagrin — by three witty, visually peerless Universal horror classics: “Frankenstein,” “The Invisible Man” and “Bride of Frankenstein” (the latter much-excerpted here).
Such success rendered even his fairly uncloseted homosexuality bearable to studio heads, who kept mum. But once their drastic recut of an expensive ’39 war pic, “The Road Back,” flopped, his career was finished. He was found at the bottom of his Pacific Palisades pool in 1957, under “mysterious circumstances.”
Story is set in helmer’s final days, painting a portrait of a physically frail, socially isolated has-been who feigns contentment hanging about his tony digs under the watchful eye of longtime Hungarian housekeeper Hanna (Lynn Redgrave). Just back from a stroke-induced hospital stay, he’s heavily medicated, clearly at rope’s end with his mental and bodily deterioration.
Yet a bit of leering prankishness remains alive yet, as demonstrated when Whale makes a fawning young film student (Jack Plotnick) shed a clothing article for each question answered.
A stronger lure is the new gardener Clayton (Fraser), a muscle-bound, rootless odd-jobber living in a trailer. Though suspicious, this unsophisticated hunk is flattered by the attention. Cat-and-mouse play ensues, as the elder uses his new, vehemently heterosexual protege by turns for leering amusement, companionship and possible fatal delivery from a once-dignified life ebbing toward undignified fade-out.
Whale’s stroke-debilitated weavings in and out of reality provide vivid narrative punctuation. At times he recalls the working-class English childhood he’d fled (and falsified later for publicists); at others, scenes from his famed “Frankenstein” pics take on frightening immediacy. But the memory tugging hardest is of the great love he’d lost in World War I battle. That’s one he’ll take to — and hopefully re-embrace in — the grave, whether Clayton expedites matters or not.
Condon softens the harsher edges in Bram’s novel. Latter painted Whale as too bitchily misanthropic to allow much sympathy, while the book’s Clayton was an opportunist and quietly raging malcontent. Overall, changes from this cold playoff are to the good, making “Gods” more complex, more poignant than the “Sunset Boulevard”-style grotesque psychodrama it might have been.
Nonetheless, central character dynamic doesn’t entirely work. One problem is that Fraser — who’s lent intelligence, sweetness and comic flair to even Neanderthal roles like “George of the Jungle” and “Encino Man” — can’t help but make Clayton’s rudderlessness seem a bit improbable. We don’t believe he’d be so easily manipulated, or that he’d fare so poorly with women (Lolita Davidovich plays a barkeep who gives him the brush-off). As usual, Fraser gives a polished perf, but he’s miscast. He’s also stuck with a poorly conceived, gratuitous coda.
McKellen, on the other hand, has seldom found such an ideal role. This Whale keeps a silvery, barbed wit sharp for his own entertainment — in one memorable party scene, he embarrasses fellow gay helmer George Cukor in front of visiting Princess Margaret. Yet despair at his own helplessness, nostalgia and vague regret are ever-present. It’s a bravura turn.
Redgrave does a rather broad job with the stern, loyal, disapproving housekeeper; at times she seems to be parodying Lotte Lenya. Support roles (including fleeting stand-ins for stars Boris Karloff, Elsa Lancaster and Elizabeth Taylor) are well handled.
Though the last 15 minutes or so falter, director Condon (best known for the cult pics “Strange Behavior” and “Strange Invaders”) otherwise executes a demanding mix of intimate character drama and fantasy elements with imaginative grace.
Stephen M. Katz’s widescreen lensing is tops; some B&W segs successfully mimic “Bride’s” expressionist splendor, helped to no end by Richard Sherman’s dexterous production design. Carter Burwell’s score may be a tad earnest, but it does help ballast this curious story’s reach toward pathos.