Great performances don’t have to appear in great films; they don’t raise everything else to their level; they can’t even be counted on to make co-stars look good. All they do is astonish, which is what Ian McKellen does in “Gods and Monsters.”
Though he’s also currently appearing in “Apt Pupil,” McKellen, one of England’s finest theatrical actors, shows up only sporadically on screen. Vividly remembered for re-creating his stage role in the fascist-themed “Richard III,” McKellen usually opts for smaller films, and his work, always impeccable, reaches a remarkable new plateau here.
Possibly that’s because James Whale, the real-life character he plays, shares some biographical elements with the actor. Like McKellen, Whale was from the north of England, worked successfully in the movie business and, by the standards of the time (half a century ago and more), was frank and open about his homosexuality.
Whale was also the director who brought the world the Boris Karloff-starring “Frankenstein” and, in fact, helped design the monster’s unnerving look. This film’s title is part of an optimistic toast to “a new age of gods and monsters” that comes from that celebrated sequel, 1935’s “The Bride of Frankenstein,” also directed by Whale.
“Gods and Monsters,” written and directed by Bill Condon, picks up Whale’s life in 1957. He hasn’t worked in film for some time, devoting himself instead to painting. Just home from the hospital, he’s recovering from a stroke that, to the concern of good friend David Lewis (David Dukes), has created a kind of jumble in his mind, causing memories of the past to seem as real as the here and now.
Not all of Whale’s facilities are impaired, however. Much to the chagrin of fussy housekeeper Hanna (an amusing Lynn Redgrave), who grumbles about his “chasing after boys,” Whale has his eye on the new gardener, macho ex-Marine Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser), who certainly knows how to fill out a T-shirt.
Impeccably dressed and as well-manicured as his meticulous yard, Whale approaches Boone with some classic spider-and-fly maneuvers, hoping the young man will agree to pose for him. “You have the most architectural skull, your nose is very expressive,” Whale says with a supremely insinuating voice that’s capable of charming a stone. Which is a necessary thing, because Boone is an archetypal big lug whose favorite expression turns out to be “I don’t get it.”
This is obviously a familiar character, and one of the things that makes McKellen’s performance so spectacular is the subtlety and delicacy he brings to a role we think we’ve seen. His Whale meets the world as a practiced performer with a knowing air and a wonderful mischievous quality, but he’s other things as well: a man of enormous dignity, proud and imperious, but also tortured with regrets and possessed of a most sympathetic and almost wistful yearning for life.
Writer-director Condon has given Whale some dead-on lines, having him tease the yardman about his “schoolgirl shyness” and gilding the lily with an authoritative “I have no interest in your body, Mr. Boone, I assure you of that.” Yet every word, even the ordinary ones, are handled with perfect grace and casual skill. There are so many colors to McKellen’s performance, so many diverse emotions fleetingly play on his face, that resisting his art is out of the question. Better work by an actor will not be seen this year.
“Gods and Monsters” is concerned mainly with the awkward friendship that develops between these two men at the opposite ends of the sexual spectrum, one just finding his way as an adult, the other confronting the waning of his powers.
While his performance isn’t a rival to McKellen’s, Fraser, best known for comedy roles like “Encino Man” and “George of the Jungle,” does a respectable job as the naive, guileless Boone, who tells his suspicious romantic interest Betty (Lolita Davidovich) that he’s never ever met anyone like Mr. Whale.
Like Whale’s “Frankenstein” films, “Gods and Monsters” tries to mix humor with the increasing pathos of the director’s situation and flashbacks to his personal past and the filming of his classics. But while a lot of “Gods and Monsters” is acceptable, none of it, frankly, rises to the levels of subtlety that McKellen’s performance does. Even Condon’s writing and directing seem more alive and involving when this exceptional actor is the focus of them.
Was James Whale exactly as he appears in this film? That’s open to question. “Gods and Monsters” is adapted not from a Whale biography but a novel (Christopher Bram’s “Father of Frankenstein”), so its specifics are not necessarily historically accurate. But as a psychologically acute portrait of a singular man at a crossroads in his life, nothing whatsoever is wanting.
* Not rated. Times guidelines: some nudity and sexually themed discussions.
‘Gods and Monsters’
Ian McKellen: James Whale
Brendan Fraser: Clayton Boone
Lynn Redgrave: Hanna
Lolita Davidovich: Betty
Kevin J. O’Connor: Harry
David Dukes: David Lewis
Released by Lions Gate Films. Director Bill Condon. Producers Paul Colichman, Gregg Fienberg, Mark R. Harris. Executive producers Clive Barber, Stephen P. Jarchow. Screenplay by Bill Condon. Cinematographer Stephen M. Katz. Editor Virginia Katz. Costumes Bruce Finlayson. Music Carter Burwell. Production design Richard Sherman. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
At selected theaters.