Ian McKellen, Rosalind Ayres, ...

We can only conjecture that the tender regard British director James Whale had for the monsters in his two great movies “Frankenstein” and “The Bride of Frankenstein” sprang from his own sense of outsiderhood as someone isolated culturally and sexually from most of ’30s and ’40s Hollywood; Whale (who was openly gay) died in 1957, mysteriously, in his swimming pool at the age of 67. But from such a supposition, writer-director Bill Condon has made a deeply touching, elegant, and inventive biographical fantasy. “Gods and Monsters” is an extraordinarily graceful film about desire, aging, and the creative harnessing of personal pain into art (low and high), which is, of course, what a good chunk of moviemaking is always about.

Based on Christopher Bram’s novel “Father of Frankenstein,” Condon’s film imagines Whale (Ian McKellen, dignified and heartbreaking at once) in rapidly deteriorating health, dabbling in painting (as did the real Whale) when not slipping in and out of memories, many of them World War I monstrosities. (Whale did time in a German POW camp.) The ailing director is cared for in his plush Los Angeles home by a stern housekeeper (Lynn Redgrave, understated except for a clichéd mittel Europe accent), while his lush Pacific landscape is tended to by a handsome shirtless — and heterosexual — gardener (Brendan Fraser, rising confidently to the role) who catches Whale’s fancy and is invited into his home. And it’s in the innocent yet loaded relationship between the old man, whose every inner monster visits at twilight, and the young man, encouraged to think about his own interior demons for the first time, that “Gods and Monsters” achieves its exquisite tension — deepening beautifully from a “Death in Venice” setup to an imaginative meditation, on art and life, of uncommon sensitivity.

Gods and Monsters
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