STARRING: IAN MCKELLEN, LYNN REDGRAVE, BRENDAN FRASER
Set in 1957, Gods and Monsters is a speculative account of the last days of the film director James Whale. The name may not be familiar, but back in the 1930s Whale made a huge splash with two landmark horror movies, Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. Thereafter his career went into decline, and he retired to a quiet backwater in LA's Pacific Palisades before he decided one morning to destroy himself: he was found dressed in a three-piece suit in his swimming-pool. Written and directed by Bill Condon, who adapted it from a novel by Christopher Bram, the film seeks an answer to why the director came to such a drastic pass. Was it madness, despair, or simply an inability to keep boredom at bay?
As played by Ian McKellen, Whale is Hollywood's idea of the typical English gent: urbane, amused, immaculately dressed and incorrigibly gay. He lounges in sequestered luxury, attended by his clucking mittel- European housekeeper, Hanna (Lynn Redgrave), who is at once protective and scornful of "Mr Jimmy's" louche ways. One day a small but debilitating stroke leaves Whale in turmoil; memories of his earlier life flash unbidden through his stricken mind: his dismal childhood in working-class Dudley, the carnage of the trenches during the Great War and a fellow-soldier he loved, scenes from the set of his monster-movie. While in this vulnerable state, he spots through his window the new gardener, Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser), and we see the glint of something predatory in the older man's eyes. "You have the most architectural skull," he tells Boone, who only gradually becomes aware that his employer may have designs on other parts of his anatomy.
A former marine, Boone seems at first a guileless, almost childlike fellow, and shruggingly agrees to model for a portrait. During their sessions Whale talks openly, more openly than he intends, about his life. We learn that the sensitive boy was considered an "aberration" in his family, and that his father was a loveless man. We glimpse the closeted world of gay Hollywood, and the nude poolside parties chez Whale. And, little by little, we sense Boone's increasing fascination with this fading but still exotic creature. When he watches a TV re-run of Bride of Frankenstein in a bar one evening, it's apparent that he's looking for clues to link a movie about suffering and love with the effete old man who's adopted him as a confessor. What Boone can't yet see is that his awkward tallness, his shapely skull, his "noble and misunderstood" spirit all remind Whale of the lumbering, bolt-necked figure whose legend he created years before.
God and Monsters keeps us guessing: is this a film about an evolving friendship or a fantastically devious seduction? Just when the master- monster relationship seems to have been established, director Condon throws in a dream sequence in which it is Whale supine on the operating table and Boone who's sawing off the top of his skull. The ambiguity is deepened by two beautifully nuanced performances. I'm not sure I've ever seen Ian McKellen engage with a character as intimately as this. Melancholy yet mischievous, he is lightly dismissive of the movie business yet proudly defensive of his own work. When Boone enthuses over the Frankenstein movies, Whale cuts in: "I just directed the first two. The others were done by hacks." His voice is a superb instrument here, swilling consonants around his mouth like a connoisseur testing an especially fine vintage. And there's something touching about the fact that a man as lonely and reclusive as this still has a dandy's urge to make a perfect Windsor knot in his tie each morning.
McKellen's expertise has already been feted. Brendan Fraser, on the other hand, was a complete revelation. I'd only ever seen him in rubbish before (Airheads, George of the Jungle), and was initially surprised that he could speak, let alone act.
His role demands a tricky juggling of contradictions - innocence and guardedness, attraction and disgust, a willingness to learn confused by a reluctance to see. It would test a more cultured actor than Fraser, yet he rises to the challenge with unshowy grace. Boone is less than bright, but he's not stupid either, and the dawning realisation of his own sensitivity under Whale's influence is very movingly done.
The film makes room for a third fine performance in Lynn Redgrave's pinched, disapproving servant; it hasn't the tragic selflessness of Erich von Stroheim's butler ministering to Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, yet Redgrave makes us feel the bewilderment and devotion the "master" has inspired in her down the years.
With so much achievement to praise, it might be churlish to have wished for a little more energy in the picture. I think it's lacking one or two big scenes that would affirm the oddness of the bond between an English exquisite and a blue-collar Californian; I longed for more of the social comedy that springs up at the garden party thrown by George Cukor in honour of royalty, both the Hollywood sort and the real thing. Whale takes Boone along as his guest and, in front of Cukor, a closet gay, he introduces his young friend to none other than Princess Margaret: "He's never met a princess. Only queens." The half-beat McKellen leaves between those two phrases is priceless. Indeed, the more one thinks about it, the greater the outrage over Roberto Benigni carrying off the Best Actor award this week.
Bill Condon, who did win an Oscar (for Best Adapted Screenplay), has made a wonderful film, and saves one of his best shots till last. We see Boone, happily domesticated years later, stepping into his backyard and waiting for a rainstorm to break. Then he takes a few faltering steps, as though his boots were lead-weighted and his arms stiff in plaster: the Frankenstein walk. In this private moment of homage you might feel that Gods and Monsters isn't just about memory and mortality and unlikely friendships - it's also about the fragile yet enduring consolations of art.
Bill Condon, director of `Gods and Monsters', is interviewed on page 12