Friday, December 18, 2015

The Danish Girl: An awkward transformation

The Danish Girl (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for nudity and considerable sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

History is laden with fascinating people whose stories never make it into standard classroom curriculum, even at the college level.

We can be grateful, then, that movies often come to the rescue.

When Greta (Alicia Vikander, left) learns that her husband Einar (Eddie Redmayne)
enjoys posing in the guise of a woman, she begins to produce an entire series of
paintings that find favor with art lovers.
During the early decades of the 20th century, Danish artist Einar Wegener was celebrated for his landscape paintings. His wife, Gerda, enjoyed a steady career as a portraitist of prominent citizens, but recognition as an accomplished artist eluded her. This changed when Gerda began producing a series of Art Deco paintings of alluring, fashionably dressed women with distinctly almond-shaped eyes: in many cases, working with the same model.

The “model” later was revealed to be Einar, who had embraced this role as a means of validating a lifelong desire to dress and live as a woman: a wish so all-consuming that he eventually sought radical surgical intervention.

Today, Wegener is acknowledged as one of the first-known recipients of gender-reassignment surgery: a procedure most people probably don’t realize dates back to the early 1930s.

Einar and Gerda’s story has been dramatized with sensitivity by director Tom Hooper, the gifted British filmmaker who draws exemplary performances from his casts, and who turned The King’s Speech into such a droll, charming and effervescent slice of historical drama. Hooper elicits similarly strong work from stars Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl, but — alas — the film itself doesn’t live up to their memorably haunting efforts.

The problems are difficult to specify. At 120 minutes, Hooper’s film is a bit too long; the pacing also is extremely slow. Perhaps most noticeably, much as we admire Redmayne’s richly complex performance, Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen overuse tight close-ups, particularly of Redmayne’s mega-watt smile. To be sure, they’re varying levels of grins — nervous, bashful, triumphant — but, ultimately, a smile is a smile is a smile.

Strip 15 minutes’ worth of Redmayne’s smiles, and I’m convinced the entire film would play better.

But the issues go deeper. Lucinda Coxon’s script, adapted from David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel of the same title, is a bit sloppy with detail. This film has us believe that Einar’s transition from “closeted” female to surgically altered woman takes place in four short years, starting in 1926, when in fact Einar was “passing” as female by 1912. Compressing so many key events into this shorter time-span feels false and contrived: absolutely (I’m sure) the last impression Hooper would have desired.

That said, we’re no less transfixed by Redmayne and Vikander. Both cross that threshold that transcends acting, where we simply accept that they are the characters being brought to life.

Einar and Gerda are introduced as a loving and mutually devoted couple, working in different sections of a spacious, loft-like Copenhagen apartment. They’re also flirty and erotic: very much a part of the local dance, theater and art scene that encourages adventurous sexuality.

Vikander, in particular, radiates a level of sensuality that practically drips from the screen. But Redmayne isn’t far behind; his seductive qualities simply are subtler, more playful, more teasing.

The catalyzing moment comes one day when Gerda, on deadline for the portrait of a ballerina, asks Einar to don stockings and women’s shoes, so the painting can be finished. His reaction is complex, his blushing awkwardness not quite the embarrassment we’d expect, but something deeper; Redmayne’s eyes also betray a flicker of fear, as if this simple act might unlock a door left shut in his mind for a long, long time.

And, indeed, it does. Not much later, Gerda is surprised when routine bedroom foreplay reveals that Einar is wearing some of her undergarments beneath his clothes. Both actors handle this scene brilliantly: his nervous apprehension, at the moment of discovery; her initial bewilderment, a pause as the situation is digested, then a carnal grin as she accepts it.

Indeed, Gerda finds the situation delectably naughty, and playfully suggests that Einar adopt an alternate identity as his own female cousin, “Lili.” Einar, although terrified, eagerly accepts such encouragement; Lili’s “debut” comes during a party laden with their progressive friends.

But what Gerda views as mischievous fun takes a different turn when Lili attracts the attention of Henrik (Ben Whishaw), who pursues “her” eagerly. Suddenly, Gerda no longer finds the role-playing larkish ... but the bell can’t be unrung.

What follows becomes painfully intimate, with Hooper scrutinizing both characters independently, and as a couple attempting to weather an “adjustment” that is fracturing the very core of their relationship. We come to feel like unwelcome voyeurs, particularly when Einar slowly strips in front of a mirror, unhappy with what he sees, doing his best to conceal the bits that betray him as a man.

Vikander’s performance, in turn, becomes heartbreaking. Much as Gerda is disturbed by each new level of change in her husband — much as she intellectually feels that things have shifted past the point of recovery — she cannot abandon him. This wealth of emotions plays out on Vikander’s expressive features, her utter despair accompanied by equal parts defiance, resignation and — yes, no matter what — loyalty. She loves him, or her; she cannot help it, nor does she really want to.

Cinema is laden with richly melodramatic sagas of doomed or star-crossed lovers, but this definitely is one of the most unusual. But no less powerful, or believable.

Matthias Schoenaerts is quietly memorable as Hans, Einar’s closest boyhood friend, long estranged, whom Gerda contacts in the hope of learning something significant about her husband. The resulting dynamic blossoms into an odd romantic triangle, as Hans comes to care deeply for both Einar/Lili and Gerda, but calmly represses his feelings according to their respective wishes.

It’s a subtle and achingly poignant performance, because in some ways — as the story proceeds — Hans suffers the deepest disappointments.

On the other hand, Hans gets the film’s best and funniest one-liner, which Schoenaerts delivers perfectly.

Whishaw’s Henrik is similarly layered, significant mostly because he grants what Einar needs most at a key moment: acceptance. Amber Heard is deliciously voluptuous as Gerda’s earthy friend Ulla; Adrian Schiller is every inch a thoughtful art dealer whose guidance proves significant to Gerda’s career.

Alexandre Desplat delivers another of his achingly poignant orchestral scores, the music perfectly enhancing the most emotionally fraught scenes.

Although the third act loses none of its powerful melancholia, issues of, ah, medical and surgical complexity are glossed over — or ignored — to an irritating level. Radical events occur much too quickly, and matters come to such an abrupt halt that we can’t help wondering if several expository scenes got left on the cutting-room floor.

So, while Gerda’s final act — before the screen fades to black — is richly poetic, it’s anticlimactic. We feel a bit cheated.

Ultimately, then, The Danish Girl is a collection of superb performances in search of a tighter script. Redmayne and Vikander deserved better ... and so did Einar and Lili.

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