Monday, December 7, 2015

New movie review: The Danish Girl

Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander star in director Tom Hooper's rich historical drama The Danish Girl.

I sincerely hope that 50 years from now, people look back on how we live today and wonder how we did it. If two or three generations from now kids cannot fathom the way the world worked in 2015, society will have achieved some kind of success. Nothing against today, of course, but we all hopefully want the same thing – for our children’s lives to be better than ours. So far, in the course of human history, we have done pretty well.

In the U.S., for instance, every generation can say it did better than people 50 years previously. We have problems. We always have, and we always will. Perfection is impossible, but progress should never be. Advances in technology, communication, medicine, and human rights have made this the best time to be alive in our collective history, but if future generations do not blow us out of the water with their amelioration, something will have gone horribly wrong.

I thought about all of this a lot while watching director Tom Hooper’s stylish historical drama The Danish Girl. Just as sure as Lili Elbe was born in the wrong body, she was born in the wrong time. It has never been easy to be a transgender person. Still today, despite increased visibility and tolerance thanks to celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, the battle for basic rights and respect rages on. Now, imagine the first couple decades of the 20th century, when even a basic malady might get you subjected to shock treatments, radiation therapy, or whatever other quackery was en vogue.

Lili’s short, sad journey through life was marked by all of these and more, but it was marked also by compassion, strength, and love, which Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon go to great lengths to tease out in The Danish Girl. Through its lush cinematography and elegant production design, the film argues – rightly, in my opinion – that the experience of discovering your truest self is as much sensory as it is emotional. The camera lingers on fabrics and textures that illuminate Lili’s inner world, even as she is trapped in the body and life of popular Danish painter Einar Wegener.

Coxon’s script is based on the David Ebershoff novel of the same name, which is a highly fictionalized account of Lili’s life story. Where the historical Lili’s life was more complex and decidedly tragic, Coxon, and Ebershoff before her, draw out the romance at the heart of Lili’s life in her marriage to fellow painter Gerda Wegener. By focusing so acutely on the love story, the filmmakers give the plot an easy-to-follow through line and give modern audiences something more tangible to grasp.

Eddie Redmayne, fresh off an Academy Award win for last year’s The Theory of Everything, plays Lili, and he brings the same commitment and passion to this performance as he brought to that previous biopic. It is a cliché to say that an actor “disappears” into a part, but for Redmayne’s dual role as Einar and Lili, the description is apt. He is tasked with portraying two characters – one long hidden; the other fading away – in a constant struggle for supremacy.

It perhaps goes without saying – yet here I find myself saying it – Redmayne’s work as Lili is the kind of transformative, heady work that, yes, wins Oscars but also takes audiences deep inside the life and mind of the character. However, I found myself even more impressed by his performance as Einar, who is wholly a construct, a façade that can no longer hold back the truth. It is painful to watch as Einar fights to keep up the charade he has propagated while Lili refuses to be denied her right to existence any longer. It is a role with a high degree of difficulty, carried off wonderfully by Redmayne.

Vikander in The Danish Girl.
This makes it all the more remarkable that Alicia Vikander not only holds her own but often outshines Redmayne as Gerda, whose life is thrown into chaos by Lili’s sudden awakening. Vikander was amazing as the possibly sentient robot Ava earlier this year in Ex Machina, and here she brings out a different side of herself, though no less strong or impressive.

The script treats the story of Gerda, who is a talented artist in her own right, as equally important to that of Lili. This allows Vikander to dig deeply into the role of a woman who fears she is losing her husband but also must come to grips with the fact she may never have had one in the first place. She is supportive and understanding, but she refuses to put her life on the back burner, and Vikander infuses her character with a depth of sensitivity and soul few actresses could match.

Though it is not factually accurate, the story Coxon chooses to tell of Lili and Gerda feels emotionally honest. It is a love story, though ultimately a platonic one. Once Einar is irretrievably lost, leaving only Lili in his place, Gerda must decide what it was she loved about Einar and whether she can give that same love to Lili. It is a tale of acceptance and tolerance that would not be out of place today, nearly 85 years since the real Lili died. So, maybe I am wrong, and we have not come as far as I would like to think, but in 50 years, who knows?

See it? Yes.

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