Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Danish Girl (*1/2)

Directed by Tom Hooper


If you want to watch a prime example of how poor editing can really dismantle a film, I'd suggest watching Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl, which spends two hours with a story that it can't seem to find any interest in. Is it the story of a troubled marriage? Well, of course that relationship is what takes up most of the film, and Alicia Vikander, who plays the wife, easily has the most dynamic, entertaining performance throughout. Of course, what The Danish Girl is really about is the husband, played by Eddie Redmayne, who claims to be a woman trapped in a man's body - this certainly isn't too uncommon these days but in Denmark in the 1920s, it was certainly not something to be too open about. The sex change seems to be the post on which Danish Girl hopes to hang its hat, but it spends so little time actually investing the audience with this subject. And what's to make of the husband's childhood friend, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who's presence in the movie seems to only be justified by giving the wife a lover to hold once the husband becomes a woman? Or the homosexual, played by Ben Whishaw, who seduces the cross-dressing husband knowing there's a penis underneath it all? The Danish Girl is a very moribund, interminable film, and its scenes are so choppy and haphazard, it suggests that there was a time when the film was even longer. I haven't even gotten to the Parisian surgeon who looks like Ernest Hemingway!

The Danish Girl is based on the story of Lili Elbe (played by Redmayne), which was then fictionalized into the 2000 novel of the same name by David Ebershoff. It's important to note that Hooper's film is based on Ebershoff's novel, not a credited historical account (though the film makes a note of saying how Elbe's diaries were some of the first true accounts of transsexuality that the public had seen). Lili's life began as Einar Wegener, who grew to be a prosperous artist and married Gerda (Vikander), another painter. Their marriage is fortuitous; they both paint, though Einar is the only one who seems able to sell anything. Gerda's work is often disregarded, she knows that she has to be twice as impressive since she's a woman. The Wegeners' marriage seems healthy. There's true love there, even if Einar seems uninterested in joining his wife for important social events amongst artists. When Gerda asks Einar to don a dress to help with a painting of a ballerina, a secret that Einar always knew is unlocked: he identifies as a woman. The realization is instant within him, but the way he slowly reveals it to Gerda is meditated, with trepidation. This is the moment where the film begins to rub up against itself. Last year, Redmayne was in a similar marital drama, The Theory of Everything. Both films treat themselves as prestige and both films document a marriage in disintegration, but Theory of Everything succeeds, because despite presenting itself as a movie about Steven Hawking, it's actually a movie about that marriage with Jane Hawking, and the rest of the story hangs upon that.

Redmayne won the Oscar for Theory of Everything, and it seems like he's trying to win it again here. Tom Hooper has often been tagged with the nasty label of "Oscar bait", but I've always found his films to tasteful costume dramas, directed with a deliberate purpose. That said, I felt absolutely no connection with The Danish Girl. Hooper's trend to push actors out of center frame is usually attractive - he's one of the best directors in dealing with negative space - but that style just distracts here, serving no narrative purpose. The negative space brought a tension to The King's Speech that really elevated film around the wonderfully combative performances of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. Perhaps it falls flat here because the performances simply aren't that good. By the second half of the film, Einar accepts life as Lili, abandoning his former life as a husband, painter and man. He searches for help with his affliction, but only finds confrontational strangers and doctors looking to institutionalize him for insanity. This sequence is the film's most captivating, its the only moment where Redmayne seems to have a real handle on the character - this person caught between genders - and the only time Lili is presented with immediate conflict. Redmayne is trying, and his heart seems to be in the right place, but the result is stale, a sexual identity crisis wrapped tightly in tailored costumes. The performance and the film itself is too affected to really generate anything from the audience, it's relying on the topical nature of the subject matter more than anything to catch the interest of the viewer. There's a lot of crying but not a whole lot of actual emotion.

Vikander is doing good work here, but much like Felicity Jones (Redmayne's co-star/movie wife in Theory of Evevrything) the quality of the performance is undermined by the nature of the role. Even as a cyborg in Ex Machina from earlier this year, Vikander is given more agency to explore the humanity of a character. In that film, we see the scope of how talented she is as a performer, in Danish Girl we only see her capacity to play a charming, supporting wife. Vikander's Gerda is so feisty and so assured, it's not hard to wonder why she's with the mercurial Einar to begin with - in one of the script's many contrived attempts at foreshadowing, she claims that her first kiss with Einar was like kissing herself, which triggered the first of many eye rolls. Tom Hooper is an Oscar-winning director, and I don't think that title is totally bogus (though to know that he has won, while Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, David Fincher and Spike Lee haven't is a real testament to the arbitrary nature of awards), but the claims that Hooper's biggest critics file against him are all true for The Danish Girl. This film is too severe, too obsessed with prestige to see the true human tale. This is Merchant-Ivory without the passion for character or quality for performance. The topical subject matter doesn't count for anything when you have films like Tangerine out there which are much more vibrant, entertaining tales of transgenders. What works in Tangerine is just how close the film comes to complete vaudeville, but always stays true to the two women at the center of its story. The Danish Girl seems too dependent on its own austerity, not realizing that it takes a real person to make the audience care.

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