by Andrew Howe
Here's a spot quiz for the trivia buffs out there: name five films in which Ian McKellen has appeared.Feel free to prove me wrong, but I would suggest that your average moviegoer would be familiar with his performances in exactly two: Apt Pupil and X-Men (though his upcoming role as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings is foremost in the minds of many). If we were to extend the sample, one might chance upon Richard III (the one where Dick trades his longsword for a machine gun), and, if the gods are kind, Gods and Monsters. All of which stands to prove, once again, that talent and recognition are too often mutually exclusive.
"A gentle walk into the good night"
(In the interests of proving my assertion I took a straw poll at the office, and the most common response was "Who's Ian McKellen?". We live in troubled times.)
Of course, when you choose to appear in movies which, ostensibly, deal with an ageing homosexual film director and his relationship with his new "yard man", public adulation is obviously not a foregone conclusion. Which is unfortunate, because McKellen's performance in Gods and Monsters borders on brilliance: it's a moving, heartfelt ode to the mournful existence that awaits us all when our best years are but a distant memory, aided by a script that will strike a chord with anyone who has ever feared the long years at the end of the line, and known full well the reason why.
McKellen plays James Whale, the real-life director of The Bride of Frankenstein (since I didn't know Mr. Whale personally I can't vouch for the veracity of the events depicted herein, but that shouldn't detract from one's enjoyment of the film). Set in the 1950's, the retired Whale suffers from the stigma attached to homosexuality in the industry at the time, and to make matters worse he's recently suffered a stroke which has left him unable to concentrate, with visions of the past encroaching on his present-day existence.
Enter Clay Boone (Brendan Fraser), a strapping young gardener who becomes the unwilling object of Whale's desires. The bulk of the film is devoted to chronicling their unusual relationship, with Boone overcoming his initial guardedness to become a student of Whale's experiences.
Given that he left his salad days behind some years ago, McKellen doesn't need any fancy make-up to believably portray a man at the tail-end of his life. Whale is the epitome of everyone who has ever refused to believe the truth of their bathroom mirror, but his status as a "dirty old man" is counterbalanced by the appearance of uninvited phantom images from happier times. It is these poignant, touching moments that provide the film with the required pathos: whatever your views on homosexuality, it's difficult to remain unmoved by the juxtaposition of Whale's wretchedly unhappy existence with his memories of the days when his life was filled with lust, love and constant activity, before his passion was spent and his body began its inexorable decline.
The surprise comes in the form of a fine performance by Fraser - he's not a poor actor, but roles in the likes of The Mummy and George of the Jungle suggested that he was destined to remain typecast as a loveable idiot. Given that Boone's character is probably not too far removed from Fraser's real-life persona it's not a difficult role for him to assay, but he brings a certain sensitivity to key scenes which, when combined with his unexpected chemistry with McKellen, suggest that his career would be better served by a little more Clay Boone and a little less Dudley Do-Right.
The major players are rounded out by Lynn Redgrave as Whale's European housekeeper, Hanna, who was evidently included to supply comic relief and prevent the film from becoming a two-man talkfest. Some of her scenes and dialogue are a little contrived (she practically defines the word "stereotype"), but Hanna's motherly concern for her charge is affecting, and her lively vocal delivery provides a refreshing break from Whale's long dark night of the soul.
The relationship between Whale and Boone forms the core of the film, and if it's not unduly complex it's because it doesn't need to be, since the script's central concerns would have been undermined by anything overly convoluted (latent homosexuality, for example, is definitely off the menu). Boone is evidently rather impressionable, and he won't be winning any quiz shows anytime soon, so he seems unaware that his discomfit probably has less to do with a perceived threat to his manhood and more to do with his own half-formed fear of ageing. Whatever the reason, it injects the required conflict into the relationship: it's a rocky ride, with Boone wearing the mantle of friend, confidant, student and antagonist with the air of a seasoned chameleon.
Whale's motives are clearer: he'd obviously like to spark a physical relationship with Boone (for which it's difficult to condemn him - if Boone was female we'd probably just chuckle at his spirit), but dispelling loneliness is his overriding concern. This opens the way for a number of memorable exchanges, and such is the quality of the dialogue and the performances that even something as potentially mundane as Whale discussing his impoverished youth is utterly captivating. It's an absorbing journey, packed with primal emotion - anger, regret, resignation and lust all have their moment in the sun, and the script eschews cheap theatrics in favour of powerful, measured scenes that resonate long after the images have faded.
The film was written and directed by Bill Condon (based on a book by Christopher Bram), and he's not afraid to manipulate our emotions as he catalogues the debilitating effect of fading glory. This is a good thing, for it prevents Whale from becoming little more than a source of pity. There are scenes which will make anyone who has left their youth behind feel like weeping: Whale contemplating his gas mask from the war, the expression of childlike joy on his face as he recalls nights by the pool and days on the set of his films, and the haunting, powerful conclusion, when he returns at last to the trenches, the best and worst of times calling him home. It's a wonderful script, featuring a well-realised combination of dream imagery and present-day heartache, and McKellen makes it his own with a note-perfect performance that, for once, makes the term "unforgettable" significantly more than a cliché.
In a purely objective sense, Gods and Monsters features much to praise - fine performances, a well-crafted script, and a healthy dose of raw emotion. However, it is considerably more than the sum of its parts, and if it doesn't leave you in a state of emotional exhaustion then I suggest you wait a few years before going once more into the breach.Time is short, my friends, and though we may not wish to be reminded of the truth of it, there are times when we need to be shaken from our slumber. Condon has seen the future: you won't need shades in that murky half-light, but it reminds us that, if memories are all we'll have left, we'd better make sure they're good ones.
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originally posted: 04/26/01 07:24:25