Saturday 16 January 2016

Movie Review: The Danish Girl (2015)

A drama loosely inspired by real events, The Danish Girl is the story of artist Einar Wegener who underwent a pioneering sexual transformation to become Lili Elbe. The film features remarkable performances from Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, but suffers from slow pacing and a narrow focus.

It's the mid-1920s in Copenhagen, and landscape artist Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is celebrated in cultural circles. His wife Gerda (Alicia) is also an artist but still struggling to establish herself. Einar starts to display a strong emotional attraction towards women's clothing, and Gerda encourages him to model for her in a dress. She then helps Einar attend a social party as a woman, and the persona of Lili emerges. A physical encounter with a man called Henrik (Ben Whishaw) causes confusion and resentment, with Einar and Gerda unsure whether Henrik is attracted to Lili as a woman or Einar as a cross-dresser.

Einar starts to feel more comfortable as a woman, and gradually Lili becomes the more dominant presence. Gerda's career takes an upturn when her contemplative paintings of Lili find a market, but with her marriage in turmoil, she turns to Einar's childhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) for help. Lili consults with a succession of doctors to find a pathway to happiness, and finally starts to work with doctor Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch) on a potential groundbreaking sex reassignment surgery.

Directed by Tom Hooper, The Danish Girl takes quite a few liberties with the story, but remains an affecting and well-intentioned film. Einar's transformation to Lili is portrayed as difficult, courageous and slow, a journey of self discovery made more challenging by the artists' public profile and happy home life. The film is a quiet and considered human drama, and unfolds with plenty of tenderness. It is also visually appealing, the artistic social circles of Copenhagen and later Paris of the 1920s recreated with understated elegance.

However, the film is also quite slow and singular. The pacing is anemic, scenes often stretched thin and well past their usefulness as Hooper struggles to find enough material to fill two hours. The Lucinda Coxon script is also unable to branch into any real breadth. The secondary characters hover around Einar and Gerda in a state of undefined animation. Lili's clumsy interactions with Henrik and later Hans' blatant pursuit of the vulnerable Gerda are fragments of sub-plots that fail to properly progress.

The two central performances are excellent. Eddie Redmayne seamlessly evolves with his character from Einar to Lili. And as Lili, Redmayne is perfect in continuing the transition from a stiff man learning to emerge as a woman, and then gradually as a confident woman who can no longer imagine functioning as a man. Alicia Vikander is excellent in strong support, The Danish Girl also the story of an astute wife grappling with a seismic shift in her life's expectations. Vikander keeps Gerda balanced between tentatively supportive and understandably bewildered, always keeping an eye on her own happiness and never dropping into sappy self-sacrifice territory.

An essential story of individual and societal progression, The Danish Girl is sometimes poignant but also ponderous.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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