Saturday, December 26, 2015

Movie Review: "The Danish Girl" (2015)

© Focus Features

With quite a bit of buzz in the Academy circles surrounding the release of this film, it was impossible not to anticipate the performance that had people asking, "Will Eddie Redmayne win his second Oscar in a row?" On Christmas Day, The Danish Girl opened wide in theaters, a powerful, personal story of acceptance, identity, and commitment. Inspired by artist and transgender pioneer, Einar Wegener, who—in the 1910s—began living as Lili Elbe, the first person to successfully undergo gender-reassignment surgery. Beyond Lili's journey, however, is the exploration of her relationship with Gerda Wegener, and the art that introduced Lili—and her story—to the world.

In Copenhagen, 1913, Einar Wegener (Redmayne), a quiet landscape artist, begins posing for his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), as she paints a series of portraits. In an attempt to embrace a new kind of subject—and recognizing a quality within her husband—Gerda requests Einar sit in feminine poses, even dressing in female attire. He resists, at first, but soon, Einar embraces the feelings he experiences when embodying his new identity—a woman he calls Lili Elbe. With Gerda's support, Einar starts attending social events dressed as Lili, who they explain is Einar's cousin. But what started out as playful dress-up, Gerda thought, shifts into an exploration of an entirely unknown phenomena at the time: Einar, born a man, begins to believe he is a woman inside—and it is Lili who represents this truth.

A small focus within the film is on Gerda's paintings of Lili, which show at a gallery in Paris. Lili as a subject becomes monstrously popular, though no one knows that it was Einar who sat for each piece. The film doesn't delve into this as deeply as it could have, how truly popular Lili Elbe was before the world discovered her true identity—which, when it happened, brought significant publicity to Einar's eventual reassignment surgery. The movie downplays this to the point where Lili's journey appears to be done completely in secret, save for a few close confidants. While this makes the story feel personal and intimate, it loses some of its pioneering power. This was a monumental event, and this fictional twists to Lili's story cuts it's significance off at the knees by ignoring the social impact she had.

Throughout it all, Lili's fear is palpable but her resolution is firm, and Redmayne has subtle moments that are truly heart-breaking. One scene in particular when Lili is approached by a young man played by Ben Whishaw, who leans in to kiss her. Her lips quiver and tears well up, and Redmaybe plays this internal struggle brilliantly. His performance is phenomenal, to be sure, though there are times when it feels one-note. Repetitive movements, like Redmayne would only explore a handful of effeminate motions before recycling them over again. Despite that, it's hard not to recognize his transformation.

Director Tom Hooper is very hit or miss for my tastes. His eye for beauty is unparalleled, but the execution is often confusing, even sloppy. It was true about his award-winning The King's Speech, and it's true here. Dutch angles, inexplicably wide shots, a small head hovering in a bottom corner... the cinematography choices meant to highlight some aspect of the production design (usually the wallpaper), but at best, it distracts from the story itself. That was largely true for this film, as his stylistic trademarks continue. That being said, however, Hooper did manage to convey beauty—because this movie is goddamn gorgeous.

Soft fabrics, delicate lace, flattering natural light, textured walls, rich florals, glittering windows, and vibrant color palettes... there was never nothing to look at, a genuine feast for the eyes. The result here, though, is that beauty and color and design can become a detriment, especially in a character-driven piece like this that makes its characters the secondary focus. It's not for lack of trying on the actors' parts, however—they fight every second they're on screen to drag your attention back to them; and you do look their way, eventually; sometimes reluctantly.

Redmayne is complimented here by the design choices, flattered in his delicacies as Einar finds Lili within himself and comes to terms with letting her out. But it's Alicia Vikander who is the more successful attention usurper. She is, far and away, the most captivating element of the film, expressing grace and emotion with seasoned skill. She made us want this story to be about Gerda, a fascinating and revolutionary talent all her own.

Tha Danish Girl is structured like a much longer film, one that could have—should have—delved deeper into the conflicting transitions experienced by both Lili and Gerda. It is patient and revealing to start, but rushed towards the end in an attempt to wrap up the final chapter of Lili's story. And the focus on Gerda, strong at the beginning, fades almost completely by the end. The film goes totally off-balance, and it affected just how effective the story could have been. An important, relevant subject, to be sure, but there is something missing that would cement it in history as the significant film it deserves to be.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

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