Saturday, 9 January 2016

Film Review: The Danish Girl (2015)


© Universal Pictures | Source: Vogue
UK, Germany, USA; 119 min.; biography, drama
Director: Tom Hooper
Writing: Lucinda Coxon, based on the novel of the same name by David Ebershoff
Cinematography: Danny Cohen
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Matthias Schoenaerts, Amber Heard, Sebastian Koch

“I think Lili's thoughts, I dream her dreams. She was always there.” -- Einar Wegener

In his previous films, The King’s Speech (2010) and Les Misérables (2012), director Tom Hooper has already proven that he’s capable of portraying grand emotions. Now, his newest piece seems to gather all the right ingredients to also pull some heartstrings, but, surprisingly, The Danish Girl feels rather void of sincere and heartfelt sensations. It’s bloodless Oscar bait which can only slightly be mended by gorgeous visuals and the dedicated performance of its lead actress Alicia Vikander.

The film is set somewhere in the 1920s and tells the story of real-life Danish painter Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) who became the first recorded person to undergo sex reassignment surgery. As a woman trapped inside a man’s body, Einar relies on the support of his devoted wife Gerda (Vikander) and their very good friend Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), while he’s emotionally as well as physically transforming into his alter ego Lili Elbe.

Instead of focusing on a more realistic and character-driven approach towards Lili’s transformational journey and her tense relationship with Gerda, Hooper offers a more stylised take. Told in beautifully composed and coloured images, Lili’s story comes across as one abstract, life-like painting in which the brush strokes of destiny turn her from a marvellous looking man into a marvellous looking woman. No matter how much Lili might suffer underneath her flawless exterior, never does Hooper sacrifice the beauty of his visuals to display raw and honest emotions. While in Duncan Tucker’s 2005 film Transamerica I felt every ounce of pain in the gender struggle depicted by Felicity Huffman, Hooper’s Lili always remains beautiful to look at. On the one hand, there certainly is pleasure to be found in such eye candy of the highest order. On the other hand, however, this abstract kind of portrayal makes it hard for me to feel Lili’s emotions and form an attachment to the character. Throughout the film, she’s nothing more than a pretty girl with a fabulous wardrobe.

Yet, Redmayne is definitely able to dig deeper than the surface. Unfortunately, he’s not only restricted by dominant visuals. The script rushes us through events and leaves no room for an in-depth exploration of Lili’s character. Her desire to abandon her manhood and live as a woman seems to come out of nowhere, even though we’re told that it “was always there”. And rather than to evoke sympathy for her ordeal and misunderstood sexuality, Redmayne’s portrayal remains very one-sided and bloated with contrived pieces of monologue. Eventually, Lili seems more whiney, artificial and self-centred than strong, revolutionary and – above all – real.

This is especially apparent in her relationship with Gerda. Hooper turns the latter into a martyr who’s willing to sacrifice her own dreams and aspirations for Lili’s transformation. Similar to all the other supporting characters, from Schoenaert’s Hans to Ben Whishaw’s Lili supporter Henrik, Gerda only exists in order to assist Lili in her self-fulfilment. There’s no room for real interaction between the individual characters which makes watching them quite tedious after a while. It is thanks to Vikander’s strong performance that Gerda is allowed to stand out as more than just a plot device. The Swedish actress gives us self-confidence and insecurity, defiance and pain, kindness and determination. In this heap of pretty pictures and one-dimensional characters, Gerda is the only one to come across as a person made of flesh and blood. Rather than the Danish girl, it is in fact the Danish girl’s wife that shines here.

Hooper had the potential to tell an inspiring, powerful tale of self-determination and love as well as make a case for tolerance and respect. Instead, he drowned his characters in a sloppy script and all-engrossing images. And while he has Lili sob and suffer through most of the two hours of the film, I was utterly unmoved. It seems as if Hooper was so distracted by fishing for an Academy Award, that he forgot to actually make a good movie. 


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