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Gods and Monsters

Father of Frankenstein

By Francisco Delatorre

Written and directed by Bill Condon

With Ian McKellan, Brendan Fraser, and Lynn Redgrave

Movies about movies. What a wonderful concept. Such films have proved enormous successes in the past, simply because of their own introspective messages. And yet Gods and Monsters, a story about veteran director James Whale (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein), takes its setting in film culture and uses it to show that movies are exactly what this movie is not about. Driving this outstanding film are a superb screenplay, sharp direction, and a group of fantastic actors.

The story surrounds the tortured soul of James Whale (Ian McKellan), an openly gay film director who, after leaving the film industry, relaxes in the comfort of his lavish home (supported by his maid, played by Lynn Redgrave), pursuing in his old age both his artistic passions and sexual desires. His way of living is threatened, however, first by his failing health and then by the presence of Clay Boone (Brendan Fraser). Boone, a down-and-out ex-marine who mows lawns for a living, meets Whale first as director’s gardener, and the two become friends when he poses for one of Whale’s sketches. However, Whale is touched by Boone’s simplicity and naivete, and, in spite of himself, finds himself telling stories of his past and recalling the horrors of his youth. Boone’s presence seems to trigger the mental decay that is the result of Whale’s malady, and this re-living of his past only furthers Whale’s destruction. All the while, Boone is left to come to terms with his own discomfort regarding homosexuality, and to determine the specifics of his relationship with the old man.

It is a very powerful story, masterfully adapted for the screen by Bill Condon from Christopher Bram’s novel Father of Frankenstein. The screenplay propels the story with its sharp humor, wonderfully involved emotion, and well-constructed characters. Bill Condon put the whole movie together: he wrote the screenplay and his direction was, on the whole, quite good. The portrayal of the protagonist’s mental decay is driven home when we see through his eyes the blurring of the past with the present, the real with the imaginary. Some very impressive visual effects (similar to that of Pleasantville), along with a solid editing job, put us right in the midst of James Whale’s struggle with his own loss of control, and force us to identify with both his own plight and that of Clay Boone.

Let us not forget, of course, the performances of this well-selected cast. What Condon couldn’t give to the characters on paper, Ian McKellan, Brendan Fraser, and Lynn Redgrave gave in their performances. It was no surprise to me that McKellan and Redgrave received Oscar nominations for their performances (it would have been a crime not to nominate them), and I think I know the reasons why Fraser was left out: Airheads, anyone? Their individual acting styles were wonderful by themselves (Fraser’s was the weakest of the three, although he was still quite good), but it was how they interacted with each other that made all the difference. The camaraderie they displayed at the Oscars was clearly evident throughout the film, and added immensely to its overall impact.

I was particularly impressed with some of the film’s subtleties, mainly the blurring of the time period (we know historically that Whale died in 1957, but stylistically there are some inconsistencies). James Whale’s home is quite modern in its decor and composition, although the outside world seems shrouded in the past. The characters discuss Boone’s past involvement in the Vietnam war, and imply that it happened quite a few years ago. There exists no automobile made later than the 40’s in the film. Boone and Whale attend a birthday party being thrown by George Cukor, and speak with Boris Karloff (Cukor died in 1983; Karloff, in 1969). This lack of time-specific setting seems a metaphor for Whale’s failing grasp of the present, where the space of his home represents his last tenuous grip on modernity; it is the only part of Whale’s mind that has not fallen to senility.

Indeed, for the duration of the film, Whale’s hallucinations and memories of the past all take place outside the walls of his home (there is a scene where he looks outside and sees a scene of the past through the window, but his surroundings in the room are all firmly rooted in reality). It is this underlying metaphor that makes one of the final scenes the most frightening, when his hallucinations and loss of control become so pervasive that they break down the barriers of his own home, invading his last stronghold of sanity and making his transformation all the more intense.

Complementing the movie was the well-done score by Carter Burwell, whom you may recognize as the composer responsible for Cohen brothers’ films (The Hudsucker Proxy, Raising Arizona). Burwell has proved himself an impressive musician, and Gods and Monsters is no exception, with a rich, hauntingly beautiful theme that reflects not only the horrors but also the highlights of Whale’s past, and ultimately ties his past with the present.

On the downside, the very end seemed a little incongruous; Boone has moved on, has a wife and child, but never forgets his friendship with Whale, the gay film director. It seemed to me to change what the story was about, and, in fact, who it was about; was it the gods and monsters of Whale’s mind, or Boone’s being able to overcome his discomfort with Whale’s sexual orientation? Personally, I liked having the choice of what to glean from the narrative, and this seemed to take a little away from that.

In conclusion, though, I loved it. The depiction of this aging man’s gods and monsters of the past and present, both in his life and in his mind was beautifully constructed and implemented not only by writer/director and his cast. A touching tale and a definite must-see.