Because the term hasn’t begun yet and I have a little free time, I caught a cold after babysitting a friend’s sniffly kid. My head stopped up and feeling wonky, I took drugs, drank tea with cinnamon schnapps in it, and watched movies for hours and hours. I’ll soon post a belated Weekly Screening Round-up to cover the 8 films I’m not discussing here, but for now I want to talk about Mr. Holmes (2015), the only post-1950s flick I watched in the bunch. In particular, rather than just review it, I’ve decided to compare it (between sneezes and with what little brain I have today) to one of my very favorite films that shares a lead actor, a director, and an emphasis on love and death that would make Woody Allen proud, Gods and Monsters (1998).
The star of both films is the one and only Ian McKellen. I love this actor fiercely, and even when I’m not crazy about the material (e.g. Vicious), I’m still crazy about him. I don’t know the man himself, of course, but whenever he speaks — in or out of character — I know I’m in for a treat. He puts forth intelligence, devotion, creativity, risk-taking, and love. So I enjoyed both Gods and Monsters back in the day (I’ve seen it three or maybe four times to date) and Mr. Holmes yesterday.
The director of both films is Bill Condon, and I don’t share the same broad fondness for his work as I do for that of McKellen. Between Dreamgirls and Twilight, I wondered if I’d ever volunteer to see another of his pictures again. But with McKellen in the picture, the Condon of Gods and Monsters reappeared…at least to a degree.
In terms of theme, both films pay significant attention to the impact of the past on the present, on the value of creative intellect and its loss, on aging and death, and on the vital importance but difficulty for some of bringing love into their lives. Whether it’s due to hyperintellectualism and introversion or homosexuality and illness, the films reveal the challenge in differing cultural contexts of finding and valuing love — of all kinds. I particularly liked the emphasis on rescripting the past in Mr. Holmes, where the past intruded only to reveal false memory and the need to indulge in creative fiction to cope with life’s hardships. By contrast, in Gods and Monsters, Whale suffered from delusions and great pain, bringing the past into crashing conflict with the present, making a far darker movie.
Housekeepers are the dominant women in both men’s lives, women who care for their employers and bicker with them over differing notions of propriety and social class. Lynn Redgrave’s Hanna is older, also alone, and her relationship with McKellen’s James Whale is one of parental strictness but also affection. Her personality suits his, both being set in their ways. Laura Linney’s Mrs. Munro is a quieter woman whose losses have led her to a hardened acceptance of life’s unfairness. She does her best, and in some ways she is a working class stereotype, but by the end of the film she has revealed her vulnerabilities more fully, and we warm to her, fully. Perhaps it is because I haven’t seen Gods and Monsters in a while, but Linney’s performance moved me while Redgrave’s did not.
For love objects, the films differ significantly in what the present offers each protagonist as he heads toward death. Holmes has lived into his 90s in quite asexual fashion, as far as we can tell in this version and the character as written by Arthur Conan Doyle. Whale, by contrast, coped with homophobia and the heteronormativity of Hollywood through lust, or so the film — based quite loosely on facets of Whale’s actual life — tells us. Hence, when the two men, facing the inevitability of death (one through age, the other through debilitating strokes), experience a last chance at love, the results are quite different.
Holmes finds a kindred spirit in Mrs. Munro’s son Roger (Milo Parker). He shares his love of bees as well as his writing with the boy, instilling in him some of Holmes’ own arrogance along the way. But love for the child in a moment of crisis (that ends a bit too Hollywood happily for my taste) is what draws the trio together, Holmes at last connecting with Mrs. Munro over their shared love for Roger; he finally stops disparaging her and taking her for granted. For Whale in Gods and Monsters, the “boy” on whom he turns his attention is his uneducated but hunky gardener Clayton Boone, played by Brendan Fraser with a zeal I’ve never seen in another of his performances to date. While Holmes does mold Roger a bit, he does so at the boy’s encouragement and because he sees they share a worldview. By contrast, Whale knows he has absolutely nothing in common with with Boone. He enjoys looking at him, and then uses him as a vehicle for self-understanding before death. Boone becomes his Adam, his Frankenstein’s monster, and the sets reveal this in superb fashion. Life, war, love, death — all swirl around the troubled friendship between the suffering director and his handsome but naive gardener. Frankly, I love both of these characters and love the way they’re used in the films, even if the Fraser role is far more complex than Parker’s Roger. I’m also drawn to the
Ultimately, I’m drawn to the complexity of style and content of Gods and Monsters more than the simpler tale of Mr. Holmes. The ending of the latter is far happier than the former, with Holmes making peace with death and those he cares for facing a happier future because of him. It’s downright un-Holmesian, in a way, despite the number of times McKellen’s Holmes tells us that Watson embellished and fictionalized him to the hilt. It becomes an engaging tale of a lonely man finding peace and love in his last years, and not a lot more. Gods and Monsters haunts the viewer, throughout the film and even after the frightening climax and bleak ending. There is more complexity and craft in the direction of the film, ultimately, and I believe it will stay with me far longer than Mr. Holmes.