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Overall Rating

Awesome: 0%
Worth A Look: 0%
Pretty Bad: 14.29%
Total Crap42.86%

2 reviews, 2 user ratings

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Danish Girl, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Paints a fine portrait, but not sufficiently inspired."
3 stars

There was talk fairly close to its release about "The Danish Girl" being nearly three hours long, although that turned out to be a working print and the actual finished film is a more standard two. With the end result being a film that is capable enough to get the story told but not much more, one wonders if maybe it should have been allowed to breathe or if different material should have made it into the final cut. The subject matter and cast should yield a more absorbing movie than actually appears.

It is, primarily, the story of Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), an artist of some repute in Copenhagen who creates landscapes, continually returning to a scene near his childhood home. His wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) paints portraits, and though her work is technically excellent, it does not gamer much respect. One day when their friend Ulla (Amber Heard) is running late for her sitting, she has Einar put on her stockings and shoes to serve as a model, and it awakens something within him. Soon he and Gerda have created a female alter ego for him, "Lili", and while painting Lili inspires Gerda to do exceptional work, it's revelatory for Einar, who realizes that Lili is her true self, a concept that people are barely starting to articulate in 1926.

There is a thread early on in the film about how Einar and Gerda are unsuccessfully trying to conceive a child, and much of the final act occurs at a clinic whose primary purpose is the care of pendant women, and the idea that Einar and Gerda wound up bringing a new person into the world in an unconventional way is thematically an interesting way to look at the story. Interesting, but not necessarily satisfying, given the way things wind up shaking out, and not just because this manner mandates subtraction along with addition. It also seems to be in competition with an easier reading - that their roles as husband and wife were always reversed, since Gerda was not only the person to initially ask Einar out, but seems naturally more assertive, becoming the breadwinner even as it's implied that Einar/Lili had a fair amount of female biology from the start - rather than complementing it, and the contrast doesn't add much complexity.

There's also a timidity to the film that does it few favors. Part of it may just be that what happened to these people in real life was just not melodramatic - as much as it's a great setup when Einar's childhood friend Hans has grown into a hunky art dealer (Matthias Schoenaerts) who just happens to be living in Paris as the Wegeners take up residence there, if there was no juicy love triangle, then it would be tacky to invent one. Ulla not just being a perfectly accepting friend but being able to direct them to an ideal next step also seems conveniently useful, but not unbelievably so. With few exceptions - which Lili almost has to go out of her way to find - it often feels like screenwriter Lucinda Coxon and director Ton Hooper have a tendency to imprint more twenty-first century progressive attitudes on the situation than even those early-twentieth-century people spending most of their time in artistic communities might have encountered. I may be off there - I wouldn't be surprised if at least a portion of the transgendered community found it exploitative or misleading - but there does seem to be a conscious decision to emphasize dignity at the expense of drama, and the film could have a much greater impact if that balance was shifted a bit.

I'm curious about what that community makes of Eddie Redmayne as Lili, beyond the understandable frustration with cisgender actors playing transgender roles. He's initially given some very broad material - watch him tingle whenever he touches an article of women's clothing! - but he plays Lili with the right combination of nerves and relief throughout. It's also a tremendous relief that Redmayne doesn't really try for a more feminine-sounding voice; the whispered uncertainty at the start and lack of disguise when Lili decides that this is who she is are almost all the change of delivery needed.

For all that, though, it's likely that many in the audience will spend a fair amount of the film noting that Gerda is actually the more interesting character and often the more sympathetic one - her disappointment that Lili seems to have no interest in painting likely echoes that of the audience, as does her sharp response. Alicia Vikander is wonderful in the role, keeping Gerda luminous but earthy, always making it clear that Gerda feels the cost of every success or bit of progress that she and Lili make, which is not always something the audience feels from Redmayne's Lili. Vikander and Gerda are how the audience connects to the film as much as it does.

It's got the handsome production values of a prestige release, at least, with makeup and costuming being as good as they almost have to be, but also some great use of color: There are yellows in Copenhagen, for instance, that seem right out of a painter's palette, and more than one shot where I'm tempted to check how closely the staging matches one of Gerda's works. Hooper knows how to use the scenery to enhance what the characters are doing, and he rarely steps wrong in relaying what the audience needs to know.

That seldom stepping wrong might be worth trading in for going off the beaten path. "The Danish Girl" is a respectful story of a humble pioneer, and to be fair, that may be all that a significant portion of the audience is ready for. Even if that's the case, it would be nice if it were more passionate and a little less noble.

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originally posted: 12/12/15 16:53:46
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Venice Film Festival For more in the 2015 Venice Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/19/16 Erika Jones I really wanted to like this movie. 2 stars
1/08/16 John Handsome but lifeless and void of insight, Redmayne's performance shallow 2 stars
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  27-Nov-2015 (R)
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