Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Danish Girl

There’s a scene in The Danish Girl in which a group of female shop assistants in 1920s Copenhagen are told by their supervisor that serving customers is a matter of performance. One new recruit gives a knowing smile, as well she might; for she is Lili Elbe, born a male named Einar Wegener, and knows a thing or two about playing a role. Based on the true story of a pioneering recipient of gender reassignment surgery, and on David Ebershoff’s book of the same name, Tom Hooper’s drama constantly emphasises the dimension of acting in gender identity – but too often in the film, performance blurs uneasily with pantomime.

In 2015, transgender themes and characters achieved their greatest media visibility yet: on TV, Transparent and BBC2’s Boy Meets Girl; in the cinema, Tangerine and the Australian drama 52 Tuesdays; in the real world (or at least, that hazy zone where it intersects with planet Vanity Fair), Caitlyn Jenner. While arguably the most mainstream-friendly of such phenomena, The Danish Girl is manifestly serious in intent. Yet it’s a laboured, glossy affair in which the complexity and challenge of Lili’s process of becoming are buried under a glaze of sumptuous design and arch acting.

When we first meet young painters Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), they are enjoying a happy, tender marriage, marred only by the disparity between their professional levels of success. Einar is an acclaimed creator of stark Nordic landscapes, while Gerda is getting nowhere as a portraitist – not least because the gallery system is reluctant to accommodate women. Then one day their dancer friend Ulla (an alarmingly high-spirited Amber Heard) is late for a portrait sitting. Gerda persuades her husband to deputise in stockings and ballet shoes – and slender-legged Einar visibly experiences a frisson of self-revelation. Later, Einar comments appreciatively on Gerda’s new negligee: “I might let you wear it,” Gerda says, teasingly. “I might enjoy it,” Einar replies. Pause. Gerda (warily): “Is there something you’d like me to know?”

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Everything depends on Redmayne making Einar to Elbe not just believable, but sympathetic, even heroic. Hooper set out to make a film that would inspire the transgender community in their struggle, he says rather grandly in interviews. He cast "40 to 50" transgender actors in the movie, just not the one role that some in the trans community most wanted to see – a trans actor as Lili. To be fair, Lili has about one third of the screen time of Einar, so Redmayne's casting is not just defensible, but necessary.
Hooper's strategies as director are another matter. For a film with such an interesting tale, Hooper does his best to make it lifeless and "artistic", slathering jam all over the toast. This is an exercise in constructed melodrama, galloping toward an unearned sense of tragedy, draped in fine fabrics. Einar and Gerda, first encountered in Copenhagen in 1926, are very much in love – young Bohemians, hot for each other, six years after their marriage. Their apartment is stark like a theatre set, a soft grey, so as not to distract from the fabulousness of these two beautiful people. Quaint peasant women in folded bonnets made of newspaper sell fish on the quayside.
Einar is a successful painter, even if he seems only to paint the one tableau – a watery scene with four wintry trees. Gerda gets nowhere doing portraits, until the day she asks him to pose in a woman's stockings and shoes, so she can finish the leg of their ballerina friend Ulla (Amber Heard), who's late. Einar comes over all funny once he slips into stockings.

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