Friday, November 19, 2010

Rewatchable Fictional Biographies Of Men Who Want To Be Monsters: Gods And Monsters

The Good: Direction, Characters, Acting, Narrative structure
The Bad: Somewhat predictable plot
The Basics: Excellent acting and vivid, emotive, ultimately human characters come together in a film that tells an old story without making it feel that way; Gods And Monsters is very insightful.

Having been grossly disappointed recently by the supposed classic Citizen Kane, I'm contemplating writing a book of essays entitled "100 Films Better Than Citizen Kane." Gods And Monsters certainly makes that list. Come to think of it, given how lowly I view Citizen Kane, maybe I ought to up that number to 1,000!

Be that as it may, Gods And Monsters is incredibly satisfying fare. The plot is simple enough: we meet James Whale, aging film director. He's the man who directed Frankenstein and Bride Of Frankenstein along with several other films. He has had at least one stroke and now his faculties are failing him. In his last weeks, he becomes fascinated with his new gardener, Clayton.

What happens is somewhat predictable, almost formulaic; the two men learn about each other, reject and confess to one another and develop an uncommon relationship.

The strength of the film is in the way it executes the plot. We know much of what will happen, but the way the story is told, the way it unfolds keeps things fresh. Whale's eccentric storytelling, Clayton's youthful confessions, Whale's horrific flashbacks, they all come together in such a way that the pace feels right and everything converges giving the sense that you're watching something new. That alone is rare in films where so much is formulaic. This film takes the old formula and gives it a reworking, so if it were an equation, the variables are very different, but the answer is the same.

One of the variables that helps make everything seem so new are the characters themselves. Whale is not simply an eccentric moviemaker, he's a survivor of the Great War and an upbringing in poverty. Clayton is not simply a dumb ex-marine and a homophobic gardener, he's a vibrant man with a past, demons of his own and, above all, a spirit. Yup, I've finally gotten to the point where I'm citing characters having soul. Not a judeo-christian soul, but spirit, presence, energy, vitality. How rare is that in characters today! About halfway through the film, I realized what separated the principles in Gods And Monsters from the protagonists of Citizen Kane was that I cared. I cared about the stories Whale told, I hung on his every word. I cared about Clayton and as the film unfolded, I was left feeling that I understood both of them and I was glad I understood them. Do you understand that? There was an overwhelming sense that these were interesting people and I had a connection to them. In fact, it's hard not to have a connection to them if you watch the film. They're memorable.

It seems lately I've come across too many films with excellent characters, crummy actors or, far more often, excellent actors playing characters that are so bland and uninspired that they make me not want to ever watch movies again. Gods And Monsters is a perfect example of using truly great actors in amazing characters. The two complement each other, enhancing and growing upon them.

Ian McKellen was nominated for the Academy Award for his portrayal of James Whale. I wish I knew who beat him in 1998, because he was simply fabulous as the aging homosexual director. He plays Whale with class and distinction. I'll confess there were moments I thought McKellen was Patrick Stewart and I'd say that's a compliment; I'm a fan of Stewart's works. The two are both fine actors. Brendan Fraiser, if you can believe it, was a phenomenal foil for McKellen and he rose to the occasion; his acting is flawless here. Of course, the scene stealer is Lynn Redgrave, whose portrayal of Whale's housekeeper, whose character is reminiscent of Igor of Frankenstein and she pulls it off amazingly well.

It's rare to have such a strong cast of so few acting at their peaks, but Gods And Monsters delivers. I also have to mention that the music by Carter Burwell deserved to be nominated for awards; it fit the film perfectly.

I'm also pleased Gods And Monsters won an award for the writing; it is layered, precise and always moving. It's rare to have such a piece that comes together so well, especially a piece that very really creates a time and place without feeling dated. For some people, Citizen Kane is one such movie; I'll take Gods And Monsters, though, any day of the week.

For other works with prominently gay characters, please check out my reviews of:
Six Feet Under
But I'm A Cheerleader!
Strawberry And Chocolate


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2001, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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