James Whale (Ian McKellen) is not, by nature, a creature of nostalgia. With a once-thriving filmmaking career decades behind him, Whale lives a modest but elegant Los Angeles existence with his housekeeper-caretaker-mother hen, Hanna (Lynn Redgrave). His creative pursuits consist of painting -- primarily copying famous works -- and eyeing the new gardener, Clay Boone (Brendan Fraser). But, all in all, he lives very much in the present, even though this tweedy British aesthete -- with his dry humor and old-world manners -- is severely out of step with the shiny, happy people of 1957 America.
Gods and Monsters, writer-director Bill Condon's fictionalized reconstruction of the last months of the filmmaker's life, finds the 67-year-old Whale still agile and enthusiastic after a series of strokes. But the side effects are beginning to unravel his carefully composed equilibrium: He's prone to bouts of incapacitating confusion, while at other times, long-suppressed memories rise up with vivid and frightening immediacy.
Just as he can no longer control his own ability to process the past, neither can he control how his artistic legacy is remembered. Whale enjoyed a great deal of creative freedom within the Hollywood studio system during his long, fruitful and varied directing career. But two of his films overshadow all the others: Frankenstein (1931) and its superior companion, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
In Mary Shelley's novel, mad scientist Victor Frankenstein appropriates conception from women and creation from God, never seeing the horrific effects of his twisted desire on the creature he gives birth to. James Whale's films focus on the point of view of the monster(s) born of his scientific arrogance. Lumbering, inchoate, angry, needy, the creature embodied by Boris Karloff in Whale's Frankenstein searches for his place -- and a friend -- in a world primed to despise him.
So what does Whale see in the handsome but uncertain Clay? Someone to be molded. Whale takes him under his wing, but as their relationship grows increasingly complex, the dynamic begins to subtly shift, particularly when the matter-of-factly gay filmmaker confronts Clay's knee-jerk homophobia.
In one of the most poetic passages of Condon's evocative film, Whale's past and present, reality and creative life beautifully mesh: Clay, as the monster, leads his creator through an expressionistic black-and-white landscape until Whale comes to rest in a World War I trench beside the bodies of his fellow soldiers.
Bill Condon also has his principal characters watch The Bride of Frankenstein on television and then gauges their reactions, which range from amusement to terror to derisive laughter. But Clay sees something more, which he can't quite pinpoint until years later: the perspective of a god who's ennobled by seeing the world through the eyes of a monster.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].