"Gods and Monsters," a fictionalized version of the last days of '30s horror film director James Whale, is a showcase for a uniquely sympathetic virtuoso performance by legendary stage actor Ian McKellen in an otherwise minor film. It's simultaneously a lesson in the treacheries of novel-to-film adaptations and in the pitfalls of the "biopic."
The film takes as its source Christopher Bram's deft, elegiac novel "Father of Frankenstein." Bram centers his novel on the retired director's obsession with a hulking gardener who's been hired to mow the lawns at his Hollywood home. The gardener, played by Brendan "George of the Jungle" Fraser, is Bram's invention, and clearly a conscious and witty variation on the hackneyed sexual fantasy of the virile manservant. In the novel's scheme the gardener serves to trigger the elderly Whale's musings on the central themes of his past: his interrupted career as early Hollywood's only ecstatically "out" gay director and his invention of an icon -- the image of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster -- which persistently overshadowed his other achievements and, eventually, his life.
The film follows this scheme scrupulously, departing from the novel only in the ways that film must: condensing long interior monologues into pithy sequences of action and dialogue, turning what's inside out. Whale took up painting after retiring from his clashes with the Hollywood studios. He persuades his poor fetishized gardener to pose for him in his garden studio in various nervous states of undress. During the sittings the details of Whale's rise and fall -- from a Dickensian English childhood and fighting in the trenches of World War I through the Frankenstein films and his eventual rejection by Hollywood -- emerge in a series of dialogues between McKellen and Fraser, alternately flirtatious, poignant and hostile.
It must have seemed an elegant solution to the problem of condensing a life story to the length of a feature film, and in many ways it is. By focusing on a brief, charged episode at the end of Whale's life, director and screenwriter Bill Condon is freed from the usual stale methods of the biopic: a tour of high points and conflicts hurrying toward a pat resolution. Resolution, "Gods and Monsters" seems to say, is the whole question of a life like Whale's -- and the past, glimpsed here and there in flashback, is merely the stuff out of which resolution will or won't be made.
The key element in the mixture is, of course, McKellen. The openly gay giant of British stage works infrequently in film -- anyone want to guess why? He's reported to have glimpsed a bit of himself in the proud, reticent Whale, and from the evidence on the screen, imaginative transference between actor and part was complete. McKellen is hypnotic in this part, lending an absolute authority and dignity to even the most absurd of Whale's struttings and posturings. Among many priceless moments, my favorite may be when, at a garden party, Whale has an opportunity to show off his fish-out-of-water hunk to a European princess and to anxiously closeted gay director George Cukor. "He's never met a princess before," McKellen explains, seemingly polite. "Only queens." When Cukor blanches at this bit of coded cattiness, McKellen glows with pleasure. Throughout this film he unearths bemusement, discord, loss and real eroticism from Whale's attentions to his hunky gardener, often simultaneously. For moviegoers in search of greatness in screen performances, consider this recommendation enough.
Unfortunately, Fraser is awkwardly miscast as the object of Whale's nostalgic obsession -- and as the film moves toward its somewhat strained Gothic payoff that imbalance looms larger and larger. It's not that Fraser's a bad performer, though he does feel a little too contemporary for a film set in the '50s. It's merely that he's too pretty, too sulky, too self-evidently harmless to be the trigger for the darker half of Whale's fantasies. As a glance at the first chapter of Bram's novel makes clear, the gardener figure, a former marine, should be scary as well as enticing to Whale. Fraser's not dangerous enough. He's not ugly enough. We ought to be frightened for the smaller, older man's safety in the presence of this creature. Instead, McKellen runs rings around him.
The result is something like watching a marvelous one-man show on an off-Broadway stage. McKellen is truly superb, but the film is static, coming more to life in those all-too-brief flashbacks showing Whale on the set of "Bride of Frankenstein" or in the muddy wartime trenches. It sparks to life as well in scenes with other antagonists: young, gay social climber Edmond Kay, played by Jack Plotnick, or Whale's severe but devoted housekeeper, played by a nearly unrecognizable Lynn Redgrave in an eccentric but effective performance. We yearn for more of these glimpses of Whale's career, and more banter with his verbal equals. McKellen, nevertheless, provides plenty of electricity -- even if the monster never quite gets off the table and walks. And somewhere, watching, James Whale is very, very happy.