World War I veteran and Frankenstein director James Whale has suffered a stroke whose side effects include a mental condition whereby he is afflicted with vivid flashbacks that prevent him from concentrating. The elderly homosexual notices the shapely shoulders of Clayton Boone (Fraser), an ex-Marine who trims his Beverly Hills lawn, and asks the young man to model for him. Their friendship grows to a mutual admiration.
Though biographical movies about Hollywood stars have been common since The Jolson Story in 1947, only recently have real-life film directors warranted the full treatment. While Tim Burton's Ed Wood was a collage of the best stories about the famously eccentric Z-film director, this adaptation of Christopher Bram's novel Father Of Frankenstein is rooted meticulously in the last days of Dudley-born, Hollywood-resident James Whale. Through a fictional relationship, Bram speculates about the circumstances of Whale's death and weaves an impression of the specifics of his life and career.
Following his turn in Apt Pupil, McKellen is again Oscar-worthy here as Whale. A working class lad who reinvented himself as a gentleman amid the carnage of World War I, his surprisingly brief film career was highlighted by Frankenstein and Bride Of Frankenstein and then faded away.
Rooted in a sophisticated reworking of the emotional thread of Bride Of Frankenstein (the Monster wants a friend), the relationship between Whale and Boone is perfectly played, with Boone at once charmed and repulsed by the canny, wicked Whale. A melodramatic twist is a little reminiscent of the film Agatha in its addition of mystery to the known facts, but the heart is McKellen's performance for Fraser, and the younger man's baring of body and soul. It has a streak of waspish comedy - at a Hollywood party, Whale introduces his gardener to a plummy Princess Margaret - but, in the end, goes straight for the heart with a beautiful, fantasy-tinged finale.
McKellen superbly inhabits Whale with a mixture of vulnerability, anger and dignity, but the real surprise of the movie is Fraser, taking the less showy "listening" role, who etches Boone's journey from dumb lug to sensitive soul with underplayed skill.