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Film Review: Gods & Monsters

‘Gods and Monsters’, Bill Conlan’s portrait of 1930’s Hollywood director, James Whale, is not so much about loneliness as alienation. Whale, played superbly by Ian Mc Kellan, notes sardonically that his family were "like farmers presented with a Giraffe who insist on harnessing it to the plough". A one time member of the Hollywood set, thanks to classics such as Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and Showboat, we meet the ageing homosexual in a very precarious state of mental health, the result of a recent stroke. Aided by a deeply religious yet cantankerous old housekeeper - Lynn Redgrave - Whale tries to fights his deterioration.

gods&monsters1.jpg (9469 bytes)A welcome distraction to the electrical storm in his head presents itself in the shape of Clayton Boone, a beefy young drifter recently employed as gardener. Recognising not only a handsome form but also a lack of direction similar to his own, the wily older man sets out for some diversion. Having convinced an uncomfortable Boon to sit for him while he sketches, Whale finds himself drawn into a cycle of reminiscence. It’s during these mental travels back in time that this sympathetic character study evolves.

Conlan’s skilful direction allows the audience to take up the story of these two very different people as their lives momentarily converge. In the absence of any discernible plot ‘Gods and Monsters’ evolves into a study of themes, in particular isolation and alienation as parallels are drawn between Whale and the Monster he brought to life on the silver screen as a young man.

The film takes a swipe at society, with its corrupt value systems that have forced both of the main characters to pretend to be something they are not. In particular the class-based snobbery of England is compared to the shallowness of the Hollywood elite. Both had rejected Whale, the former at birth, the latter only as a result of his refusal to pander to the studio bosses. This culmination of artistic independence and a refusal to hide his sexuality, however, landed him where he finds himself in later life: abandoned, almost forgotten and half-insane. "Be careful of freedom", he says reflectively "it can be addictive".

Ultimately this is a wonderfully refreshing film based on an intelligent script, both humorous and sad. The acting of McKellan and Redgrave lends huge weight and balance to what is often a slow moving but intriguing script. The film tells a touching story simply, without recourse to any of the distractions of modern cinema.

Brendan Killeen  

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