Director: Tom Hooper
Writer: Lucinda Coxon
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard.
As with all biopics, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, while the inspiration for the story may be true, we must not accept the story as historical fact. More so in the case of Tom Hooper’s new movie, which is based on a novel inspired by true events and is mostly a fictional account of what really occurred. What we do hope, though, is that a film is able to capture the spirit of the inspiration and depending on the themes and lives explored, do them justice in a respectful manner worthy of the lives being depicted onscreen. The Danish Girl is not an all around success, but there are several redeeming qualities that help it out along the way.
Tom Hooper is not a subtle director and his use of closeups has become a bit uncomfortable. In Les Miserables he utilized the closeups to prove that the actors were singing live to camera and not lip syncing their parts as in other movie musicals. In The King’s Speech the closeups were meant to focus on King George’s lips as he stuttered and eventually conquered his speech impediment. This time around the camera zooms in on the elements that the protagonist finds either appealing or abhorrent, something like shoes for the first category or her own genitalia for the latter. The camera scans bodies slowly from top to bottom, fabric is inspected inch by inch, a large portion of the film is an extreme closeup of Eddie Redmayne’s alabaster face. It was a bit distracting. The score, by Alexandre Desplat (Oscar winner for The Gran Budapest Hotel and nominee another 7 times), is distracting, obtrusive and invasive this time around. The supporting cast, such as Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, and Amber Heard is largely forgettable and don’t add much to the overall finished product.
So what’s good about the movie? The two protagonists. They are really good. Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander excel in this story that is really about the two of them anyways. Redmayne plays Einar Wegener and Vikander is his wife Gerda, both are Danish painters living at the beginning of the twentieth century. The couple appears at the beginning of the film as the epitome of the happily married couple, truly in love with one another, supportive, and with a healthy sex life. One day Gerda asks Einar to model for her so that she can finish a piece, asking him to wear stalkings, shoes, and hold up a dress. Clearly this is a turning moment for Einar, who is seen connecting to the fabric in a way that is much more personal than expected. Slowly this play with fabric turns into a game for the couple and the two, together, create Lili, an alter-ego for Einar, a cousin of his from out of town. Lili makes her public debut at a friend’s party, where she shares an innocent and fleeting kiss with an acquaintance. For Gerda this is the moment when the game ceases to be amusing and strife begins to enter the marriage. Lili begins to appear more regularly and Gerda sees her husband disappearing little by little, replaced by a woman she does not recognize. Redmayne does a fantastic job transitioning little by little, disappearing into the role and metamorphosing two fully realized characters and all the moments connecting them in between. I was impressed with him last year with his ability to showcase so many moments of Stephen Hawking’s descent into disease last year, but I think this film shows off his talents even more. Alicia Vikander is a revelation though. One thing I usually hate about stories like this one is that the wife character is just a long suffering archetype of pain and put-uponness who patiently dotes on the man in her life and doesn’t get to do much but cry and react. If not supportive, then she is a shrew who doesn’t recognize the genius and refuses to stand by her man, and so she becomes the primary antagonist. Not so here. Gerda is a fully realized character, with will, tenacity, strength, and, yes, even weakness and vulnerability. I loved her brazenness and her quiet desperation. For once this was a character to root for alongside her counterpart, possibly because, in the end, it was two women we wish well – both innocent and trying to find happiness and fulfillment mostly together, as a team.
The movie does a good enough job representing a trans experience at a time when such a thing was mostly invisible. I was disappointed to see a fetishizing of female clothing and hyper-femininity. Lili is seen caressing garments as if those elements are meant to provide her woman-ness, in spite of using better language and terminology later on in the movie. The only female bodies admired are those that seem to perform over-the-top female behavior (ballet dancing, art modeling, etc.) as opposed to a more mundane and routine lifestyle of fitting in, which is what Lili seems to desire. We also can’t escape the punishing nature that the trans experience may bring, but that issue is with the source material all together. The film also gets away with casting a cisgendered actor as Lili because it depicts both parts of the transition process, so I understand the logic that went into the casting even though it would have been really great had a trans person been given the role, but baby steps. In a year in which this film and Tangerine both receive attention and get made at all is cause for celebration, as trans visibility is growing and hopefully one day we won’t be seeing those horrifying statistics of murder, rape, and pain that are still so common nowadays, even 100 years after the steps taken by women like Lili Elbe and all the unsung voices just like hers.