The Danish Girl (2015)

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There exists very few genres that can be either wonderfully fascinating or dreadfully boring like the historical drama. A great many historical dramas have become masterpieces and staples of cinema, while many others have become overwrought, dreadfully laborious films that are made just for the sake of making the film, and audiences are falsely lured into watching them because the subject matter is relevant or important. The Danish Girl falls somewhere between the two – and while it is not a bad film, it is certainly not a good film in any way either. It is a film that simply exists.

I have never been a fan of Tom Hooper. His talent is virtually non-existent as a filmmaker, and the only reason his films are somewhat acclaimed (although very divisive) are because his actors are tremendously good. Hooper brings almost nothing to the directorial table, and the more he gets famous, the more I wonder what people see in him. This might be a bit of a scathing attack on Hooper, but The Danish Girl somewhat excels on all other fronts, except for Hooper’s direction, which seems to just be stationing the camera in strange angles to try and be profound, but instead it just looks as if he simply placed a static camera in front of the actors and let them do what they actually had the ability to do. I do think Hooper has some talent somewhere in there, but he has not impressed me (or anyone, really) with his directorial efforts, especially with Les Mis√©rables and now The Danish Girl. Maybe he should try something a bit more challenging if he wants to be seen as someone with talent, because it doesn’t seem like he leaves his mark on films, other than his clear love for the artificial and the extravagant (an element that is sometimes nauseating in Hooper’s films). In a cinematic world where every filmmaker is able to bring something new and unique to a film and leave traces of their achievements, however big or small, Hooper dares to be the one that simply does not.

Another person I am not particularly fond of is Eddie Redmayne. I find many of his performances to be truly forced and for him to be unable to disappear into the roles he attempts to play as naturally as one would expect. However, I do believe he does have talent and that he is a fine young actor, most of the time. His performance in The Theory of Everything two years ago may not be one of my personal favorites of the year, but definitely a devastating and touching performance, and he truly brought the essence of Stephen Hawking to the level of cinematic greatness it achieved. It will be easy for me to bash his performance in The Danish Girl, because there doesn’t seem to be any need for me to praise him, but being absolutely objective here, he does give a very good performance here in The Danish Girl. However, it is not a performance that he is great in from beginning to end (unlike The Theory of Everything, where he did his absolute best throughout the film). Redmayne plays Einar Wegener, a Danish painter who is happily married, but soon realizes that he was born a woman, and endeavours to overcome the seemingly impossible task of becoming a woman in a period where such a notion didn’t exist, but Wegener persists and ends their life as Lili Elbe, a happy (but still very young) woman. This film presents Einar Wegener and Lili Elbe as two completely different people, and thus Redmayne gives two completely different performances. This is where the problem lies – as the insecure, paranoid and terrified Einar, Redmayne is fantastic. He gives a performance that nearly matches that of his in The Theory of Everything, and it is stellar work from him. However, when Redmayne plays Lili, it was just unbelievable and artificial, and while he did look the part, I just couldn’t find myself believing his performance at all. It is not like me to preach absolute political correctness, but I just found Redmayne’s performance as Lili to be problematic, not because it was offensive, but because it seems like he didn’t do nearly enough work to honour the pain and legacy that Lili felt, and it became somewhat of an afterthought in the third act. On a whole, I am conflicted – was Eddie’s performance as Einar good enough to overcome the problems with his performance as Lili, or was his performance as Lili troubling enough to disregard his good work as Einar? In the end, I feel like the two performances just cancelled each other out, which is disappointing, because I feel like with some more work (or a different actor), the role could’ve been a lot more effective.

Every few years, there is an actor or an actress that has a tremendous breakout year by starring in a very many films within that one year. In 2011, the cinematic world was formally introduced to Jessica Chastain, who has become one of the most popular and interesting leading ladies of today. In 2015, Alicia Vikander, a young Swedish ingenue, had her moment in the spotlight, starring in a total of six films last year alone, and if there was a time for her to breakout, it was that year. There were two performances that she was noticed the most in – the brilliant Ex Machina, and The Danish Girl. It is difficult for me to say where I preferred her, but I do recognize that she gave an exquisite performance in The Danish Girl. Tender, soulful and wonderfully touching, she is simply a revelation in it. The Danish Girl is as much Einar/Lili’s story as it is Gerda’s story, and playing the suffering but supportive wife of Redmayne’s character, she is absolutely wonderful. It isn’t a groundbreaking performance in any way, but Vikander is simply fantastic and she brings a great sense of life into this film. To be perfectly honest, The Danish Girl only has this modestly high score because Vikander is just simply breathtaking as Gerda, and the film is worth it only for her performance.

The problem with The Danish Girl is that it comes at a time when transgender issues are hot button topics, and when it is something that is spoken about openly, which is important. However, the problem is that The Danish Girl tries to be progressive and forward-thinking when it is in fact nothing more than a vaguely interesting historical biopic. Society is still not very adapted to the idea of transgender issues, and it has been nearly over eighty years since the death of Lili Elbe – and it is pretty clear that people weren’t nearly as open to these issues back then as they are now – however, The Danish Girl fails to emphasize the actual problems and social rejection transgender people go through. One does not need to agree with the concept, but they cannot deny that the transgender community is often ostracized and discriminated against, and with the exception of one short scene in the film, The Danish Girl almost entirely ignores the social issue that someone like Lili Elbe would go through in the late 1920s. Another issue with the way transgender issues are portrayed in The Danish Girl is that of inconsistency. It is very clear that Einar only truly felt connected to being a woman when he was dressing up for his wife’s portraits as a simple model, or having some fun and dressing up and presenting as a woman at a party, despite the rest of the film being Einar insisting that he was born female and needed to be corrected. It seems that Einar was relatively content being Einar, until he was “awakened” by his liberal and free-spirited wife. Whether you agree or disagree with the issue this film presents, you can’t deny it is just not handled in the way that Hooper was planning to have it, and instead of being an important, progressive film, it is rather just a quaint historical biopic. Tangerine, a film released in the same year, is far better both as an overall film, and as a statement on transgender issues – who would’ve thought that a film made using an iPhone would be more effective than the big-budget period drama?

The Danish Girl is not a good film, nor is it a bad film. It is squarely in the middle, and it veers towards being better than I expected, only because of Vikander’s performance. Redmayne is good enough, but his performance as Lili is just troubling. Tom Hooper didn’t prove himself to be any better than before, and if he continues to make these kinds of simple, but seemingly important, historical dramas, he will never get the acclaim he so desperately hungers for. Overall, The Danish Girl is a relatively safe film, but it just is not good enough to warrant the level of importance the filmmakers tried to promote.

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