The Danish Girl (2015)

danishgirl_2015_poster
The Danish Girl (2015)
  • Time: 120 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama
  • Director: Tom Hooper
  • Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard

Storyline:

Copenhagen, early 1920s. Danish artist, Gerda Wegener, painted her own husband, Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), as a lady in her painting. When the painting gained popularity, Einar started to change his appearance into a female appearance and named himself Lili Elbe. With his feminism passion and Gerda’s support, Einar – or Elbe attempted first-ever male to female sex reassignment surgery, a decision that turned into a massive change for their marriage, that Gerda realized her own husband is no longer a man or the person she married before. A childhood friend of Einar, art-dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), shows up and starts a complex love triangle with the couple.

5 reviews

  • Eddie Redmayne was transcendent as Stephen Hawkins in last year’s The Theory of Everything. If you have been living under a rock for the past year, Redmayne won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Hawkins. Redmayne transcended once again in his role as Balem Abrasax in this year’s Jupiter Ascending but this role will have him most likely nominated for a Razzie. Redmayne couldn’t leave us with that haunting performance and transcended one last time into one of the transgender pioneers as Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl and this will be a role that will land the actor another nomination for Best Actor at the Academy Awards.

    The remarkable love story inspired by the lives of artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener (portrayed by Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne [“The Theory of Everything”] and Alicia Vikander [“Ex Machina”]), directed by Academy Award winner Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech,” “Les Misérables”). Lili and Gerda’s marriage and work evolve as they navigate Lili’s groundbreaking journey as a transgender pioneer.

    It isn’t hard to tell that The Danish Girl is huge Oscar bait seeing its social ties and the pair of great actors they recruited for the film. Director Tom Hooper’s decision to not offend or shock audience members by using a cisgender actor to play Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe that the LGBTQ community demanded for might even benefit his chances as well. One has a love/hate relationship with Oscar bait films because sometimes they could feel forced and Redmayne and Alicia Vikander save the film from a director that is forcing this depiction of David Ebershoff’s novel. Hooper might not receive an invitation to the Oscars but our leading actors have secured their invitations.

    Vikander has been everywhere this year from the amazing Ex Machina to the summer blockbuster The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. The actress has starred in a grand total of six films in 2015 and even though Ex Machina is a superb film, Vikander has created her masterpiece with The Danish Girl. Vikander’s Gerda is the only one who is seeing reality for what it is and takes on majority of the emotional toll. The man that she loves is starting to begin a life which does not include her in the picture despite Gerda painting her husband throughout his transformation. Instead of fighting with her husband about the potential heartbreak that she is going to endure, Gerda stays by her husband’s side stronger than ever. For better or worse, Vikander becomes the emotional center of the film by its final act and her raw performance helps uplifts the film.

    Redmayne started the year on a terrible note with Jupiter Ascending and it appears that it took Redmayne to portray a female for him to be as delicate as ever on the big screen once more. Gerda and Einar welcomed Lili with open arms but Gerda becomes scared that Einar is no longer just playing a game when dressing up as Lili. This is when Redmayne begins to shine as Lili, due to new found freight, Einar starts dressing as Lili behind his wife’s back and the result is something that could be compared to a girls first time walking into the world’s biggest Sephora. Redmayne is so delicate in his transformation and you could truly sense his curiosity for this transformation is genuine. The film’s most exquisite scene deals with Einar attending a Paris peepshow, not to enjoy the show but to observe how a female moves.

    The supporting actors are not to rave for and the same could be said about Hooper. One would wish that Hooper decided to take more of an aggressive approach with the film as transgender representation has started a wave in Hollywood but where the director falls short, Redmayne makes up for. If this film was meant to have Redmayne land a nomination then the film was a success and a could be considered bigger one as two actors should be receiving a nomination.

  • With numerous independent films and television series depicting nuanced and edgy tales of the transgender experience, perhaps the reserve and carefulness of The Danish Girl would seem too old-fashioned and behind the times. Based on David Ebershoff’s fictionalised account of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex assignment surgery, director Tom Hooper’s film adaptation has all the hallmarks of the traditional prestige picture. That in itself should be cause for some celebration. The gloss may mask some flaws, but one should not deny that its subject matter is being given a very mainstream platform it otherwise may not have received.

    Its release certainly is timely, given Bruce Jenner’s well-publicised rebirth and reclaiming of his true identity as Caitlyn, but this is a project that has knocked about for a decade with various actresses like Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow and Marion Cotillard rumoured to play the role of Gerda Wegener, which is ultimately assumed by Alicia Vikander. Understandably, the role of Lili, who first begins the film as Einar, was far more difficult to cast. Timing is everything and, criticisms of cisgender casting aside, no one is more perfect for the part than Eddie Redmayne. The young actor, who had been doing mostly fine work, suddenly leapt to the next level last year, delivering a physically and emotionally impressive performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Redmayne far surpasses that work in The Danish Girl, and it is not unlikely that he might receive a second and consecutive Best Actor Oscar (joining Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks in that extremely elite group).

    When we first meet Gerda and Einar, they are a happy couple that have been married for six years. She is a portrait artist whilst he is a landscape painter. Though Gerda has talent, her paintings are not as sellable as his. She needs to find the right subject matter. She unwittingly does when she asks Einar to stand in for a model who is late for a sitting. The touch of the stockings and dress against his skin awakens something mysterious yet familiar within Einar.

    The sensation excites him and Einar posing as a woman inspires Gerda, whose paintings of Einar as Lili begin to attract attention. It seems a game at first when a naked Gerda unbuttons Einar’s shirt to discover him wearing her chemise. It is still a game when she playfully suggests he dress up as Lili for a ball. But something happens when a young man named Henrik (Ben Whishaw) approaches Lili. Redmayne conducts this passage so beautifully – you can see Einar wondering if Henrik is aware that Lili is a guise, you can feel Einar’s amazement that perhaps he is pulling off this masquerade, and you can pinpoint the precise moment when Einar disappears and Lili takes over.

    When Gerda confronts Einar about his encounter with Henrik, he tries to explain that, for a moment, he was Lili. Lili doesn’t exist, Gerda reminds him but she knows that something has changed and the act of losing her husband has begun. For a time, The Danish Girl resembles the most genteel horror movie with Gerda never knowing if it’s Einar or Lili she’ll find when she arrives home. Vikander skillfully conveys Gerda’s conflict as she struggles to hold on to her husband as she knew him and adjust to the person he is becoming. She is nothing short of breathtaking during the moment she asks Lili if she can see her husband for just a while. “Can you get him?” she softly pleads.

    The complications of Lili’s return to her true self oscillate between the simplistic and the overly emphasised; and the tale’s provocative gender politics (Gerda remarking how difficult it is for a man to “submit to the female gaze” or Lili insisting, “I want to be a woman, not a painter” to which Gerda points out that it is possible to be both) are presented as nuggets of intrigue rather than fully fleshed investigations. Yet one has to concede that it would take more than The Danish Girl or the critically acclaimed Amazon series Transparent or any of the past, present and future works to create a multi-dimensional exploration of the LGBT experience. For now, let the handsomely mounted, opulently rendered The Danish Girl serve as an introduction to the life of an extraordinary individual, one who paved the way, along with many others, for those to come out from the fringes and embrace their true selves.

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  • (Rating: ☆☆½ out of 4)

    This film is mildly recommended.

    In brief: Two fine performances are lost in a wearisome biopic.

    GRADE: B-

    Back in the 1920’s, Gerda Wegener created erotic female portraits. Asking her artist husband, Einar to don women’s clothes and pose for these paintings paved the way for his sexual liberation and freed his inner identity as Lili Erbe in Tom Hooper’s uneven biopic, The Danish Girl. The film tells the story of the makings of one of the first transgenders, even though some of the actual facts are glossed over and never accurately presented.

    The film depicts the balancing act that this married couple faced with the proper degree of poignancy as they both come to terms with Einar’s vibrant counterpart. Lili’s persona starts to overshadow him. Naturally these changes affect their relationship as the gender issue becomes irreversible. While Einar opts for sex reassignment surgery, Gerda must deal with her own emotions through this turmoil and decide her rightful place in Einar’s / Lili’s life. That the roles are played by Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander only enhances the film’s impact.

    Hopper does craft his film well and give his talented leads enough leeway to create indelible characters, due more to the credit of the actor’s prowess than the actual writing. In fact, the dullish screenplay by Lucinda Coxon never allows them to act realistically to their life-changing situation. Yes, they are both free spirits and eccentric artist types but these major events would certainly test any Bohemian lifestyle to the max. (This is especially true in the pivotal first scene when Greta under-reacts when discovering her husband’s secret penchant for wearing women’s clothing. Her response rings false.)

    One can readily admire the filmmakers’ sincerity and earnestness with this project. But this important subject deserves a more realistic spin than the lyrical approach that Hooper decides to take as the director. He downplays the serious nature of the film with too many lingering travelog shots of Copenhagen and other period details. The pacing of the film becomes tedious and slower than Einar’s own physical change. Beside the script by being problematic, so is the actual physical transformation by Redmayne from Einar to Lili. One never quite believes that he is a she. (It is most jarring in a scene where he dons the female garb to be “my fair lady” at the ball when everyone is all eyes at this ravishing “non-beauty”. Yet another flawed moment.) The actor, while displaying enough feminine mannerisms, cannot convincingly transcend the transgender role due to the hair and make-up design of his character.

    Still, Eddie Redmayne makes some bold choices in the title role and lets his character underplay the uncertainty in the outset and become more selfish and determined toward the end. (In fact, there is one nicely structured scene when the actor starts to mimic the sexual movements of a prostitute that shows the inner struggle that tore at Einar. This inspired moment tells more beyond mere words.) Even making the situation more effecting is Alicia Vikander as his loving spouse. Her character is torn between the man she married and the woman she admires. Ms. Vikander is a revelation, giving a nicely modulated performance by showing her subtle range in her emotional highs and lows. Amber Head as their friend, Ulla, brings some sparks to her lifeless role. Other supporting turns by Matthias Schoenaerts and Ben Whishaw never rise to that level of excellence due to the sketchy nature of the characters they play.

    Alas, despite the superior acting by the two leads, The Danish Girl is in need of some personal realignment as well.

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  • The life of a transgender person can be a frightening existence of insecurity. The worry alone could make someone crazy if they haven’t already been convinced they’re crazy because of what they’d like to do. The Danish Girl carefully weighs all of this, along with the good stuff, and presents it in an intelligent and emotionally clear way. Lucinda Coxan’s screenplay has taken David Ebershoff’s novel and given it life. The story, however, had a life all its own since it is a true story about one of the earliest gender change operations. It’s a fine balancing act Coxan does, staying with the truth but making the characters sympathetic and likeable.
    Director Tom Hopper has tried to compress years of this story without losing the emotional builds and almost succeeds. Unfortunately, too often it seems as if something was happening too fast or that we must have missed something and the script would try to fill in the missing time but couldn’t. The movie doesn’t lack in quality film making, superior acting, beautiful costumes and sets, or an important statement. It just doesn’t come off as believable. It is so well done I walked out of the theater understanding more about transgender people than I did before having talked with transgender people. The movie says things that clarified and convinced me but, as a movie, as an entertainment, it just missed by the smallest fraction.
    It’s true that modern hormone therapies weren’t available in the 1920s and the operations were, at best, a guessing game since there was no history to fall back on. Eddie Redmayne plays Einar/Lili and throws himself into the role. The emotional ups and downs, the attempts at studying women’s movements, the change from Einar to Lili are all well done. I just didn’t believe him. I can’t tell you why I didn’t believe it because it is a well acted and emotionally charged performance worthy of awards. When Redmayne is Lili, however, I saw too much Einar to be totally convinced with Lili. Alicia Vikander plays Gerda, Einar’s wife, and she shows every emotion the character is feeling across her face. Both these roles should be nominated for awards. They are excellent.
    In supporting characters are Ben Whishaw as Henrik and Mattias Schoenaerts as Hans. Each of these characters is a supporter for Lili and Gerda. They are done just as well as the leads but since the characters didn’t have as much to lose there is less concern about them.
    I give this movie 3½ portraits out of 4. I’ve seen men get up as women far better and, even though I didn’t expect a complete transformation, I wanted to believe Lili but I always saw too much Einar which may have been the point. The film makers didn’t want you to lose sight of Einar as he became Lili. It’s still an entertaining movie and well worth the time.

  • “Are you a reporter,” Lily’s ball beau asks, “or a poetess?”
    Einar’s paintings are reportage, the stuff of journalism—a description of the surface appearance. So are wife Gerda’s commissioned portraits. Her success as an artist comes when she goes beyond the surface and explores her husband’s hidden sexuality, when she paints him as Lily. In moving from surface to depth, from the apparent to the possible, she moves from reportage to poetry.
    Einar’s landscapes point in that direction themselves. His landscape subjects provide the opening montage and the site of the film’s ending, when his widow and old friend Hans visit the sites he had painted. One of Einar’s recurring images is a line of thin trees standing frail atop their partial reflection in the water. In the first series a wide-reaching skeleton of a tree is completely duplicated by the water below. Those trees are an emblem of the transgender hero, with a firm material image above and a shimmering weaker one below, the male persona with a female nature submerged. Whatever Einar wears — whether in clothes or in genitalia — he dreams Lily’s dreams.
    Gerda has been subconsciously aware of her husband’s feminine nature. When she first kissed him “It was like kissing myself.” She catches his femininity when she dresses him in women’s costume and when she draws him asleep. Even as she loses her husband she supports his movement toward realizing his true gender. As he says, “I love you, because you are the only person who made sense of me. And made me, possible.”
    His old friend Hans is similarly accepting of Einar/Lily’s duality: “I’ve only liked a handful of people in my life, and you’ve been two of them.” Though as a child Hans may have been attracted to Einar — “Einar just looked so pretty and… I had to kiss him! So, yes, I kissed Einar.” — his nature proved heterosexual, as wee see in his embrace of Gerda, though he never married. The film delicately presents the gender fluidity our society has come quickly to accept.
    That is proved by the easy success Tom Hooper’s poetic melodrama has enjoyed. We’re ready to identify with and to sympathize with transgendered characters, as we have so quickly come to accept same-sex marriages. Perhaps we’re ready to embrace an actual transgendered person instead of one safely played by a good actor. We’ve had some transgendered performers on the TV shows Transparency and Orange is the New Black, but this film settles on a safer, more sanitized presentation. The opportunity for a harder view, a more challenging realism, is ultimately allowed to fly away —like the gossamer scarf Einar gave Gerda back.

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