Gods And Monsters

on November 06, 1998 by Wade Major
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   Highlighted by a stunning tour-de-force performance from Ian McKellen as famed film director James Whale, "Gods and Monsters" is precisely the kind of lean, top-notch storytelling of which the real Whale would have been enormously proud. Simultaneously poignant and tremendously entertaining, this excellent effort from writer/director Bill Condon ("Candyman 2") manages to be a triumph of both style and soul, a vessel well worthy of its esteemed subject matter.
   Adapted by Condon from Christopher Bram's fact-based novel, "Father of Frankenstein," "Gods and Monsters" concerns itself mainly with Whale's twilight years, when the legendary director of such films as "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein" had already been long-ostracized by Hollywood for his open and surprisingly exhibitionistic homosexuality.
   Using Whale's unlikely friendship with his handsome young gardener Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser) as a vehicle for psychological exploration, Condon pushes the envelope of traditional biopics into uncomfortable and invigorating new territory, blending in occasional flashbacks and a surrealistic dream sequence or two to help punctuate the emotional tragedy that was Whale's life.
   McKellen's Whale, however, is far more complex than even his films or the vagaries of his life would indicate. The portrait that emerges suggests an almost Shakespearean figure, a man consumed with conflicting emotions and hidden passions; loathsome yet sympathetic, sadistic yet wry, vengeful yet magnanimous.
   Not to be overlooked is Brendan Fraser's superbly nuanced performance, without which McKellen might not have had the chance to excel so magnificently.
   No less complex or conflicted than Whale, Fraser's ex-marine Boone represents the perfect dramatic counterpoint to Whale's late-life angst, a common man thrust into an uncommon world for which he is both emotionally and intellectually ill-suited.
   Inevitably, many will see "Gods and Monsters" as a kind of companion piece to Tim Burton's "Ed Wood," yet another indictment of Hollywood's cruel willingness to unceremoniously dispose of great talent for which it no longer has a use. But "Gods and Monsters" is much more than simply another incestuous film industry conceit. It is a parable about the elusiveness of happiness, contentment and fulfillment, an all-too-timely reflection for the modern age.    Starring Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave and Lolita Davidovich. Directed and written by Bill Condon. Produced by Paul Colichman, Gregg Fienberg and Mark R. Harris. A Lions Gate release. Running time: 105 min.
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