For another, because writer-director Bill Condon, who based his film on the speculative novel by Christopher Bram, has created a lyrical film about a prickly subject: a gay man who in his senescence confuses himself with Dr. Frankenstein and his hunky straight gardener (Brendan Fraser) with the mad doctor's hulking creation.
Made with the dark mood and light wit that distinguishes Whale films from other Hollywood Gothics, Gods and Monsters has a lot on its menu. Among the questions it wryly asks are how gay and nongay people can forge a relationship not based on seduction and sex, how to live with elan and die with dignity, and whether in a deeply homophobic society it is less soul-destroying to be out of the closet than in.
Not that Gods and Monsters answers the questions definitively. It throws them in the air, juggles them, drops them, and watches as they bounce unpredictably across the Hollywood patio.
With his insinuating voice and teasing manner, McKellen is the master juggler - like his character, he is outrageous without outraging. Whale, who was born in Britain and shaped by his experiences in the trenches during World War I, was a working-class kid with an artistic gift, and McKellen plays the plebeian who would be patrician to the hilt, if not the armpits.
Most of the drama unfolds in Whale's gracious home, where he is tended by his Polish housekeeper, Hanna. She is played by Lynn Redgrave, looking as though she's sucked one lemon too many, and her fierce protectiveness of ``Meester Jeemy'' and fiercer disapproval of his sexuality is, like McKellen's performance, seriously funny.
Into this household lumbers Clay Boone (Fraser), who rattles its residents and himself. The hyper-refined Whale sizes up the coarse youth and asks the gardener to pose for him. What ensues is two men of very different ages and temperaments and affectional orientation recognizing that they are both outsiders, that the world at large sees them as monsters. The surprise is that they can learn from each other as father from son - and vice versa.
McKellen suggests such depths of passion and character that no other actor - particularly Fraser, who is playing callow - could possibly measure up. The result is a lopsided drama about reciprocal emotions, but it is surprisingly moving.
GODS AND MONSTERS * * * Produced by Paul Colichman, Gregg Fienberg and Mark R. Harris; written and directed by Bill Condon; photography by Stephen M. Katz; music by Carter Burwell; distributed by Lions Gate Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.
James Whale - Ian McKellen
Clayton Boone - Brendan Fraser
Hanna - Lynn Redgrave
Betty - Lolita Davidovich
David Lewis - David Dukes
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (discreet nudity, sexual candor, adult themes)
Showing at: Ritz at the Bourse and Ritz Twelve/NJ