"Gods and Monsters" takes as its narrative engine the mysterious death of director James Whale in 1957 and the events that may have led up to it.
A strange little film that speculates that Whale befriended a strapping young man, tried to woo him, and finally implicated him in his own suicide, "Gods and Monsters" features an extraordinary performance by Ian McKellen as the self-invented Whale. It also connects in a fascinating way his most famous movie -- "The Bride of Frankenstein" -- and the trauma he suffered in World War I.
Still, an oddly misplaced temporal sense keeps "Gods and Monsters" from being the gripping story it should be. Director Bill Condon has carefully reconstructed Whale's gorgeous California home, but contemporary feeling still suffuses the film, which is set in the 1950s. The anachronistic feeling isn't helped by the presence of Brendan Fraser, who as the young man whom Whale befriends is simply not believable as a recent Korean War veteran.
"Gods and Monsters" posits that Whale, who has just suffered a mild stroke when the movie opens, became fascinated with a young man named Boone (Fraser), a gardener whom he first glimpses cutting his lawn. With subtle generosity and finesse, Whale lures the young man first into his house, then his art studio and finally his most inner life, engaging in a ritual that continually crosses the line between befriending and seducing.
At first, Boone is naive about Whale's sexuality, and once it becomes clear that the older man prefers other men, he reacts violently, refusing his friendship. Gradually, though, he comes back, embarking on a real-life relationship that is eerily reminiscent of that between Dr. Frankenstein and his beloved monster.
"Gods and Monsters" is an interesting curio and probably worth the trip for admirers of McKellen, who was pressed into service most recently in the deeply flawed "Apt Pupil." Silky and slightly malevolent, he conveys an attractive sense of mischief as he seduces not just Boone but a young man who has come to interview him. As Whale's story deepens -- rejected by his working-class British family for being an aesthete, he virtually brought himself up as an artist -- McKellen's characterization deepens as well, resulting in a vivid, sensitive portrait of a long-forgotten filmmaker.
Good, too, is Lynn Redgrave, who as Whale's long-suffering German retainer provides comic relief. But somehow, the film fails to gel fully, perhaps because Fraser -- and Lolita Davidovich, as Boone's sharp-tongued ex-girlfriend -- never mesh well with their elders. "Gods and Monsters" is a worthy endeavor, but it's for connoisseurs only.
'Gods and Monsters' Starring Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave Directed by Bill Condon Released by Lions Gate Films Rating Unrated (some offensive language) Running time: 105 minutes Sun score: **
Pub Date: 1/01/99