Father of the Bride

Gods and Monsters dissects the complex figure of James Whale

Sound bleak and morbid? Not in the slightest. That's because Condon was lucky enough to engage the English stage actor Ian McKellen, best known for his Shakespearean roles, to play Whale--and wise enough to know when to stand back and allow McKellen to inhabit a part he clearly embodies right down to his finger tips. McKellen's name has become fairly synonymous with prestige projects, notably the screen version of Shakespeare's Richard III (1995). (He also stars in the recent Apt Pupil.) In Gods, he demonstrates his incredible ability to convey raw, subtle and difficult emotions. And Condon gives McKellen all manner of visual and dramatic richness to chew on.

While the plot may nominally be set in the Hollywood of 1957, Gods really takes place in Whale's mind. It's an odd and melancholy place in which past and present compete for attention, each finding itself, often as not, trumped by fantasy. Jumbled and disconcerting as that may sound, it's crystal clear onscreen; Condon is aware of the fact that the two Frankenstein films, and much of Whale's other work, are evocations of World War I. The Great War marked Whale and his generation in the same way that World War II and Vietnam would mark later ones. More to the point, Condon knows it's only a short step from war's charnel house to a laboratory where disparate corpses are sewn together to create new forms of life. He makes this plain from the film's opening shot, in which a dark, hulking figure that could be a soldier or a lab-created "monster" lurches across a barren landscape that looks like a battlefield.

We are often unsure of exactly what we're looking at, or what anything means; the movie slips from one place and time to another, then back again, from Whale's pool to the trenches of World War I to the studios at Universal where Bride is being shot to a garden party at Cukor's house where Princess Margaret is the guest of honor (the film's funniest sequence). We're certain only that everything we witness is happening to one degree or another inside Whale's head.

While Gods and Monsters is something of a one-man show, words of praise should be offered to Brendan Fraser (though he fulfills the main requirements for his performance as soon as he reveals his remarkable body), Lynn Redgrave as Whale's housekeeper (similar to a Germanic Una O'Connor, the Irish actress who appeared in Bride), Lolita Davidovich as Clayton's slatternly would-be girlfriend, and David Dukes in a brief turn as David Lewis.

Toward the end of the film, Dukes kisses McKellen on the forehead, underscoring the love between these men who are no longer lovers. The moment has more emotional resonance than the combined results of the past decade's so-called New Queer cinema. In short, it's a moment, and a film, about compassion.

Gods and Monsters
Directed by Bill Condon; with Ian McKellen and Brendan Fraser.
Unrated.

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