Written and directed by Bill Condon, based on the book ‘Father of Frankenstein’ by Christopher Bram, following the final days of famed director James Whale, of Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. Starring: Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave, Lolita Davidovich, Jack Plotnick and David Dukes.
There’s probably only a specific group of people who will recognise the name James Whale, without it being paired with Frankenstein but it’s been nearly a century and his adaptations are forever garnering new audiences, his work has undoubtedly inspired countless filmmakers but little is ever said about the man himself. Although, we’re jumping into Whale’s life in his latter days, it gives a definitive impression that he lived life to the fullest for as long as he could, with a closeted but extravagant lifestyle. Naturally, portraying a distinguished but mischievous man in his 60’s, you couldn’t ask for better casting than Ian McKellen, a man that can perfectly explore the cultured, flirtatious and vulnerable qualities of Whale. McKellen does a fantastic job of presenting the character as both young at heart and frisky while being deeply troubled and dangerously aware of his own mortality. Pairing him with Fraser was a brilliant idea, it’s not a duo you’d expect to see onscreen together but they work incredibly well, it’s a very interesting relationship to watch develop, playing Boone’s (Fraser) homophobia against Whale’s extroverted personality and seeing how they change each other’s attitudes. It’s always satisfying to see Fraser take on roles that fall outside of what’s expected of him, with his dramatic talents having been frequently underestimated.
The performances are certainly the strongest aspect of the film, the story has its ups and downs and while it begins as something nostalgic and sentimental yet sad, it divulges into PTSD, regret and depression. Introducing Whale’s past and time in the war isn’t an issue necessarily but having built a strong narrative around his friendship with Boone, it starts to take over too much, it’s heavy handed and throws off the balance of the film. Touching upon that topic to add context to the characters growing sadness works well but it’s not something that needs the over explanation that it receives. After those moments become more frequent, the film loses its way and seems to become confused about what story its trying to tell.
There’s a quiet, simple and intimate air to the film, while it may take place in a mansion or lavish party for the most part, it never loses that sense that it’s very much about these two men and what they have to teach each other. It’s latter moments really embrace that atmosphere and culminates their friendship with a heart-breaking exchange. There’s also a great reflection of newer audiences appreciating classic cinema, a discussion that regularly invades film discourse, having Boone sat in a bar watching Bride of Frankenstein and gaining an appreciation for everything that he can learn from Whale. Similarly it demonstrates a love of cinema, especially with McKellen delivering the line “Making movies is the most wonderful thing in the world”, it’s unclear if it’s a direct quote from Whale but it’s a lovely moment.
Gods and Monsters explores an unexpected friendship that’s a pleasure to watch, while handling Whale’s reflection upon his life as mortality looms large, but it’s an unbalanced affair with one aspect working much better than the other. McKellen and Fraser make a fantastic pair that act extremely well together, so while the film as a whole may not be entirely well done or necessarily satisfying, it’s worth watching for the two of them alone.