Warning: Spoilers follow.
I’d been wanting to watch this film from beginning to end–I’d seen a few bits and pieces now and then throughout the years–for a long time. Fortunately, it became available On Demand the other day, and so I decided to a look.
And I’m really glad I did.
I’ve always had a bit of a crush on both Ian McKellen and Brendan Fraser, and watching this film reminds me of why. McKellen plays famed horror director James Whale, slowly fading into obscurity decades after his famous successes in the 1930s, while Fraser plays a gardener who gradually finds himself drawn into Whale’s world of old Hollywood memories and tortured reminiscences of World War I. At first, the rather dim gardener (whose name is Clayton Boone), seems unsure how to respond, but gradually the two develop a strong bond that is increasingly tested by Whale’s failing mental and physical health and his eventual, final descent into madness and despair.
In many ways, this film feels like a romance that isn’t really a romance. We’re never allowed to forget that Clayton is rigorously straight, but one can still detect a fair bit of on-screen chemistry between the two men, not least because it’s obvious that there is a great deal of chemistry between the two actors. And of course there’s no denying that Whale obviously experiences some measure of attraction for his handsome gardener, though I would hesitate to say that it is erotic in the sense that we normally expect. While that may be an element, he also seems to see in Boone a measure of the youth and vitality that he saw during his time in World War I, a reminder of the exquisite yet frail nature of young beauty.
Whale is also a man tormented by his past, both that in the trenches and his time as one of Hollywood’s most famous directors. This past continues to intrude on the present. Whale has begun to suffer from a series of strokes that keep his mind from being able to stay firmly in the present. Visually, of course, the film allows us to see this through editing, and there are several moments where we are violently jarred into the past. Through such editing, we come to understand the mental (and, increasingly, physical) agony that Whale feels as his body fails him and he yearns to recapture some measure of the success that and energy that he possessed in his youth.
This toggling between various times also explains one of the film’s most appealing aspects, i.e. the rumination on the nature of Hollywood. As with the finest of films about the industry of the industry (I’m thinking here of ones like Sunset Boulevard), Gods and Monsters shows us that Hollywood is a fickle mistress, willing to abandon those who are no longer seen as lucrative investments. As the film points out, at least two of Whale’s films, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein have rightly become two of the most canonical films in the horror canon. Fortunately, it also reminds us that Whale produced what is largely considered the best adaptation of the famous musical Showboat, before gradually fading into the obscurity from which he has yet to emerge.
Like the best films, Gods and Monsters leaves you with a faint feeling of sadness and melancholy, of the a world that has vanished and that will never reappear. One cannot help but feel at least a measure of nostalgia for the world of old Hollywood that the film presents to us, a world of larger-than-life figures that hold on to the last fading vestiges of their former glories.
At the dramatic level, the film features excellent performances, not just from McKellen and Fraser, but also from the late Lynn Redgrave as Whale’s caretaker Hanna. Judgmental and harsh at times (she refers to Whale as a “bugger,”) she is equally devoted to him and is absolutely devastated by his suicide. There is clearly a strong relationship between the two of them, one born of mutual affection and love. But the dramatic heart of the film is the relationship between Whale and Boone, a touching if somewhat tragic bonding between the old world and the new.