For ‘The Danish Girl,’ Eddie Redmayne studied issues facing transgender people

27 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Review: ‘Danish Girl’ has dynamic duo.

“The Danish Girl” follows the lives of the artist couple Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) and Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne), focusing on Lili’s transition from a man (as Einar Wegener) to a woman.There’s no resting on Oscar laurels for Eddie Redmayne, who has thrown himself into yet another emotional and transformative role in The Danish Girl.

Delicately directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), the period drama (*** out of four; rated R; opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expands nationwide through December) features the Theory of Everything star as transgender icon Lili Elbe, the first person known to receive gender reassignment surgery. It’s a fictionalized account of the pioneering experience of Lili Elbe, who, in Europe in 1930, became one of the first people to undergo transgender surgery. It’s a performance that’s actually more impressive than the one Redmayne won his Oscar for — playing Stephen Hawking — but he’s not the only standout in this moving love story, as Alicia Vikander proves her thespian mettle in a breakthrough role. The story begins before that transition, when Lili is living as a man, Einar Wegener ( Eddie Redmayne), and is married to Gerda Wegener; she’s played by Alicia Vikander. In that case, the union of George VI and Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was the foundation on which the tale of George’s elocutionary striving was built.

Redmayne has different sides of the same character to play — first as Einar Wegener, a talented artist in Copenhagen circa 1926 alongside his wife, fellow painter Gerda (Vikander). Here, the marriage is bohemian rather than aristocratic, but the stakes, while personal, are every bit as profound and consequential as the matters of state that drove the monarch to the microphone. Her portraits aren’t having the same success as his pastoral pieces, and when their ballerina friend Ulla (Amber Heard) can’t sit for Gerda’s latest work, she enlists Einar to stand in wearing stockings and a dress. What became key to me was honoring Lili’s experience of transition, which was specifically defined by going through it in the 1920s, when the word transgender did not exist and the medical establishment did not accept the concept. The feminine wardrobe affects him in a startling way — which Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen show through close-ups of Einar’s face, as well as his hands feeling the material — and unlocks a new passion inside him.

Soon, Gerda finds him wearing her nightgown underneath his masculine clothing, and Einar begins to embrace being Lili more and more. “It doesn’t matter what I wear,” he tells her. “When I dream, they’re Lili’s dreams.” Gerda’s story is heartbreaking but also extremely touching: Her portraits of Lili become the talk of the Paris art world as she remains devoted to her spouse, even as there’s less Einar and more Lili each passing day. The answer may lie not in the lead performances, which are extraordinary, but in the distancing insistence with which both the direction and Lucinda Coxon’s screen adaptation of David Ebershoff’s novel stress the significance of what we’re seeing. “You could be a first-class painter if you found the right subject matter,” a gallery owner tells Gerda. Gerda is a portraitist, while Einar’s landscapes — drawn from his childhood memories of the fjords and marshlands of Vejle, a town on the Jutland peninsula — have brought him a measure of fame. As she grows closer to Einar’s childhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), Gerda never falters in being there for Lili when doctors deem him insane or perverse, and tries to help during his groundbreaking surgery.

The supporting characters, from Ulla to Hans to Lili’s other confidante, Henrik (Ben Whishaw), aren’t nearly as strong as the movie’s primary couple, mostly because of a lack of screen time or effort to dig into each person’s motivations. And my production designer Eve Stewart said, fairly close to the shooting, “Tom, you do know that the Lili in the paintings is not Eddie Redmayne and doesn’t look exactly like him.” So there was a moment of going, yes, however pure I am, we are going to need to adapt these paintings so it does reflect Eddie Redmayne’s Lili.

Much of the early dialogue seems like clumsy foreshadowing — Gerda at one point tells Einar, “I’ll never be as pretty as you” — yet there is also a needed sense of humor that grounds tense scenes, buoyed by Alexandre Desplat’s splendid score. When Gerda urges Einar to go as a woman to an artists’ ball—another case of a supposedly playful impulse fitting the narrative arc—she first teaches him to walk like a woman, and I’m sorry but I couldn’t keep my mind from wandering to the much more spontaneous scene in “Silver Streak” when Richard Pryor teaches Gene Wilder to walk like a black man. Through a process that is by turns wrenching and exciting, Einar discovers that the man the world has always taken him to be is not the person he truly is. Watching Redmayne’s character blossom into her true self is remarkable, and the awkwardness getting there only helps make it more relatable to audiences who might not be on board with the subject matter initially.

The artists’ perspectives were very important to me and I tried to internalize the way they saw the world and think about the way I framed the film to reflect that. His gift for understatement translates to a fascinating ambiguity that survives purple passages in which Einar/Lili is seen as a case of multiple personality disorder with melodramatic echoes of “Sybil.” Still, I’d like to put in a very good word for Ms. She has shown glimpses of greatness this year in Ex Machina and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but the actress goes all in with Gerda, who keeps herself in check most of the time yet says it all with a single tear careening down her cheek. Teena Brandon ( Hilary Swank), a frightened and fearless young woman—no contradiction, as it turns out—is trying to pass in rural Nebraska as a young man named Brandon Teena.

He played Viola in Mark Rylance’s celebrated production of “Twelfth Night.” So he had a body of work of playing women before I approached him to play Lili. The dialogue is carefully balanced between modern sensibilities and the imaginary language of Fancy Old Europe, which is really just English spoken in a variety of lovely and heterogeneous accents. It’s all very impressive, as it was when he traced the progress of Stephen Hawking’s neurological illness in “The Theory of Everything.” But like that much-praised performance, this one does not take us where we need to go, which is inside the character’s mind and spirit. Whether she is painting, smoking, embracing her husband or offering her hand to the woman who replaces him, Gerda is the one figure onscreen who seems to breathe the sharp air of reality.

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