Review: The Danish Girl

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DIR: Tom Hooper • WRI: Lucinda Coxon • PRO: Eric Fellner, Nina Gold, Anne Harrison, Tom Hooper, Gail Mutrux • DOP: Danny Cohen • ED: Melanie Oliver • DES: Eve Stewart • MUS: Alexandre Desplat • CAST: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard

You would have to wonder. In a world where transgenderism was unheard of or treated as a form of mental illness if heard of at all, what was going through the mind of the first person to attempt a sex-change operation? What drives them to take that chance in a world that refuses to understand? The Danish Girl explores that struggle as experienced by Einar Wegener, one of the first men to undergo gender reassignment surgery.

While depicting historical people, this film is adapted from the David Ebershoff novel of the same name by playwright Lucinda Coxon. Conveying the inner struggles of a transgendered person is something Ebershoff’s prose explores eloquently but it’s more challenging for the medium of film to express such feelings without demonstrating them through characters’ interactions. Fortunately for us all, the casting in this movie is solid and provides actors who deliver the emotional punch this story needs.

Although there are valid concerns about casting cis-gendered actors in trans roles, it is fortunate on balance that Eddie Redmayne was cast, having previously demonstrated in The Theory of Everything that he commands on-screen presence while undergoing amazing physical transformation. Another Oscar for him this year is very likely because he once again embodies the compassionate humanity of a crucial figure in world history.

It’s unfortunate that some of the early scenes are staged and framed in a peculiar way as certain facial expressions of his could be viewed with a certain sense of unease. The low angles and chiaroscuro lighting of Redmayne in early scenes do not convey the delicate soul we come to know; it almost seems like some perplexing form of needless misdirection. He becomes far more sympathetic later in the film when his fragilities are laid bare and moments of warm-hearted banter round out this on-screen character as they begin their experimentations with gender.

Another parallel to last year’s The Theory of Everything is that Redmayne’s character is supported by a strong woman (is even an actor of his calibre getting typecast?). In this case Alicia Vikander, having already given mesmerising turns this year in Ex Machina and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., outdoes herself for a career-best performance as Gerda Wegener, the wife of Einar. This movie could have focused solely on Einar/Lili and her journey but that would have been at the expense of Gerda’s own moving story. It is not just Redmayne’s performance that elevates this movie but Vikander’s also for the weight she brings to Gerda’s inner conflict; loving her husband but wanting him to remain her husband.

This movie is pervaded with a tenderness that makes the couple’s emotions relatable even when they contradict the other’s desires. Every character’s viewpoint is understandable. The bigoted views of the period’s psychiatric world are made clear to be inhumane but caricature is avoided; the logic that could be expected of the time has to be presented to show the prejudice the Wegener’s endured. Gerda’s emotional need for the embrace of the man she married is in devastating contrast with Lili’s self-realisation yet neither is presented as selfish or wanting to deny the other person’s happiness. Lili’s own aching torment is laid bare in many scenes, particularly with a line that might be the most succinct and heart-rending explanation of transgenderism in cinema, when Lili says, “When I go to sleep, it’s not Einar’s dreams; it’s Lili’s dreams.”

The evolution of Lili’s self-discovery is followed from its burgeoning between a loving and sexually-experimental couple of painters in Copenhagen’s bohemian scene of the 1920s. Einar is a successful landscape painter while Gerda struggles to find a market for her portraits. As Gerda discovers her husband’s fondness for women’s clothing she gleefully schools him in the ways of femininity, even to the point of taking him to parties dressed as “Einar’s cousin from the countryside, Lili”. When Gerda starts painting portraits of Lili, she finds the subject that put her on the map as an artist. Things turn when Lili goes out by herself to date men and begins confiding stories to Gerda in which her childhood self is referred to as Lili. The prejudice they face intensifies, the brutality of which is portrayed unflinchingly in scenes that are hard-to-watch in the best possible way.

Towards the end it maintains the right balance between the tenderness of their romance and the crushing nature of their fears but finally succumbs to sentimental imagery in the film’s closing scene. It is unfortunate the contrivance of this last scene jars with the rest of the movie which had otherwise avoided schmaltz and packed a raw emotional gut-punch without it.

The Danish Girl remains an emotionally-gripping film and an impeccably-crafted one at that. The world of 1920s Europe is fittingly, a world in transition, established firmly with inspired locations and art-deco sets mixing well. Costumes capture the glamour of the period’s bohemian scene. Hair and make-up sell the striking gender transformation central to this movie. For a movie about painters, there are so many shots that have a painterly quality to them. Director of Photography Danny Cohen, of Shane Meadows’ This Is England and Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, can frame and light an actors’ face like no other cinematographer. Aside from aforementioned problems in early scenes, the power of the actor’s face dominates the frame even when the world around it is also impeccably shot. Director Tom Hooper had previously worked with Danny Cohen on The King’s Speech and Les Miserables and they continue this visual style they crafted on those films where the right actor’s face is often enough to tell the story.

The Danish Girl has produced two front-running contenders for performance of the year and has so many challenging moments your mind will be engaged and your heart will be broken. It is a beautifully-told celebration of love, tolerance and freedom of identity, themes so pertinent now for the cultural moment transgenderism is experiencing and for so many more reasons.

It may be ‘Oscarbait’ but it is quality filmmaking that has earned its recognition and deserves a wide audience.

Marlin Field

15A
119 minutes (See IFCO for details)

The Danish Girl  is released 1st January 2016

The Danish Girl – Official Website

 

 

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Jupiter Ascending

jupiter

DIR: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski • WRI: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski • PRO: Bruce Berman, Grant Hill, Roberto Malerba, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski • DOP: John Toll • ED: Alexander Berner • MUS: Michael Giacchino • DES: Hugh Bateup • CAST: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean

 

The Wachowski siblings have arguably struggled to reignite the commercial success of The Matrix, which altered the parameters of the science-fiction blockbuster in the late 1990s. Whilst their ambitious visual style marks them as visionary masters of their craft, critical opprobrium generated by films such as Speed Racer (2008) and Cloud Atlas (2012) points to an inability to reconcile an intense and elaborate visual technique with that of nonsensical and awkward plots. Such criticism has become the norm in the Wachowskis’ oeuvre and Jupiter Ascending does not appear to deviate from this career trajectory. Originally scheduled for release in July 2014, the film was delayed by seven months owing to an intricate editing process, casting a grim foreboding air over its future.

Written and directed by the Wachowskis (with more than a nod to Dune), Jupiter Ascending is a science fiction space opera starring Mila Kunis as Jupiter, a dissatisfied cleaner who discovers via genetically engineered ex-military hunter Caine (Channing Tatum) that she is the genetic reincarnation of the murdered matriarch of the intergalactic royal Abrasax family and rightful owner of Earth, the most profitable planet. The three Abrasax heirs are one of the ruling dynasties of the universe who harvest the planets once overpopulated to create a youth elixir that will see them live for millennia. When the Abrasax siblings discover Earth and their vast galactic inheritance rightfully belong to Jupiter, the duo embark on a frenetic galactic odyssey, intercepting the Abrasaxes attempts to kill her and reclaim ownership of Earth.

Adapting the classic big guy versus smaller guy narrative and attempting to elevate it to another level fails miserably in Jupiter Ascending and this is largely owing to the film’s egregious script. Whilst the reported $175 million budget for the film is clearly evident through its ambitious production design, resplendent costumes and intricately choreographed combat sequences, once the enterprising if not rather turgid spectacle has been stripped away, the audience is left with not much else. In an attempt to compensate for an over-investment into the film’s elaborate special effects, the Wachowskis infuse the narrative with a romance between the protagonists but this proves to be regressive, misplaced and underwhelming in a film containing convoluted sub-plots and involving too many archetypal characters delivering hackneyed and disjointed dialogue. All that is achieved is a chaotic core narrative with the film’s players evidently overwhelmed by the deluge of the CGI stunts involved and having very little else to do.

Kunis is undoubtedly miscast as the hapless toilet cleaner turned kick-ass action heroine and Tatum, as the hypermasculinised, saturnine, elf-eared hero, is just redundant throughout. Kunis struggles to connect with the oppressive characteristics of Jupiter and can only muster enthusiasm for the role once involved in combat. Only Eddie Redmayne as the dastardly, camp Balem Abrasax and Sean Bean as poker-faced Stinger appear to inject any sort of emotional depth into their characters, although Redmayne does border on the comical at times.

Unlike The Matrix or Cloud Atlas, which provided texts rich in philosophical musings and religious symbolism, Jupiter Ascending fails to offer its audiences anything other than a one-dimensional and disappointingly regressive visual saga of sci-fi fantasy and 1950s pulp. As craftspeople, the Wachowskis cannot be faulted for the dazzling spectacle they have created in Jupiter Ascending. Alas, this has come at a cost to both the film’s actors and audiences, who have just been deposited into a glaring void of ennui and confusion.

 

               Dee O’Donoghue

 

12A (See IFCO for details)

127 minutes
Jupiter Ascending is released 6th February 2015

Jupiter Ascending –  Official Website

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The Theory of Everything

DIR: James Marsh • WRI: Anthony McCarten • PRO: Tim Bevan, Lisa Bruce, Eric Fellner, Anthony McCarten • DOP: Benoît Delhomme • ED: Jinx Godfrey • DES: John Paul Kelly • MUS: Jóhann Jóhannsson • CAST: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Tom Prior

The due note to make to oneself prior to a screening of The Theory of Everything is that it is first-and-foremost an adaptation of Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, the memoir of one Jane Wilde Hawking, ex-wife of Stephen, and played with gentle enthuse by Felicity Jones in this year’s first hum-dinger, give-me-an-Oscar biopic. It is not, by any stretch, an attempt to adapt or even mildly document the theoretical physics of Stephen Hawking but rather to angle into his complicated family life a representation that appropriates unconditional love rather than didactic sympathy. This is a film that proudly depicts a life it considers nothing short of wonderful, which is an altogether pleasant surprise in the all-too-predictable mirage-like jungle of violin-screeching would-be biopics that yearn for sympathy above admiration, a quality that I, as an audience member, would, with the odd exception, personally necessitate of any subject considered worthy of a biopic.

The story begins in a rather dull manner, with Eddie Redmayne’s Hawking peddling metal giddily through the campus of Cambridge University in sequence that could be dropped into Chariots of Fire as easily. As a matter of fact everything progresses in a business-as-usual fashion until Stephen’s diagnosis with motor neuron disease, which is a pity considering that which is remarkable about the man commenced somewhat before this but forgivable considering the source material and emotional drive of the narrative.

The film’s greatest strengths are Eddie Redmayne, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, Benoît Delhomme cinematography and, at risk of crowding the list of highlights, one must credit James Marsh’s helming of the project entire, which echoes his previous Oscar-winning effort, Man on Wire, in a most joyful manner by presenting Professor Hawking as a man who’s physically the yin to that films uber-athlete’s (tightrope walker Phillipe Petit) yang and yet a kindred spirit in terms of sheer zest for life and experience.

Any plaudits thrown the way of this film, however, should, and will, land at the feet of Eddie Redmayne and the towering, joyous, magnetic performance he delivers to dwarf even the mighty David Thewlis, who here barely registers as Hawking’s Cambridge supervisor. Redmayne gives his body and soul to the character, in particular his eyes and hands, and it is the goods he delivers that allow the story to function well around the script’s driving theme; that the belief that everyone and everything has a place (the romantic application of the titular Theory of Everything that Hawking purportedly worked for most of his life), when applied to oneself has the ability to fill in even the most seemingly hopeless potential pits of despair. This is, above all, a life-affirming film on an almost spiritual level, something one feels Richard Dawkins would admonish were anyone to ever consider him worthy of a biopic.

The snags in the story, however inevitable, are rather course. The action moves along far too predictably to stand out as memorable, with some moments practically written around a template of Oscar-baiting schmaltz. The story lacks any real reference to any physics whatsoever, which comes across as a tad disrespectful to the audience this film will attract, namely one interested in the life of one of history’s most renowned physicists and, once again, as these stories are wont to do, everyone featuring is far too pretty and polished to care for on a realistic level. Overall though, the good moments outweigh the bad and this is by no means a trying way to spend a couple of hours indoors though not one you’re likely to remember a great deal of.

 

Donnchadh Tiernan


12A (See IFCO for details)
123 minutes.
The Theory of Everything
is released 2nd January 2015.

The Theory of Everything  – Official Website

 

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