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Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Danish Girl



The Danish Girl, director Tom Hooper's painterly pseudo-biographical film based on the novel by the same name which is loosely based on the lives of Danish painters Lili Elbe/Einar Wegener and her/his wife Gerda Wegener, is an elegant tome about one of the first people to undergo male to female sex reassignment surgery. It might have been called Captain Denmark: The First Transgender if The Danish Girl were produced by Marvel Studios. Complex, textured, transcendent performances by Eddie Redmayne as Lili/Einar and Alicia Vikander as Gerda anchor The Danish Girl, which begins with them as a happily and heterosexually married couple in 1928 Copenhagen. He paints landscapes; the same landscape every time of the view of four trees from his boyhood home. She paints portraits. When her female model doesn't appear for a sitting one day, Gerda invites Einar to don women's clothes and pose for her, unwittingly unmasking the great secret Einar has been hiding all his life. 

In the opposite way of Tobias' desires on Arrested Development, there's a woman inside Eddie Redmayne yearning to be free, Lili Elbe, the person she truly identifies as "trapped" in the scrawny freckled form of Einar. Once he begins living life as the she she always felt she really is, tentatively and frightened at first, Lili finds she cannot go back to living the lie as Einar. Lili is also right to be frightened; every doctor or specialist she sees about her "condition" is met with accusations of perversion, mental illness, and men in white coats ready to lock him up in an asylum. Lili and Gerda are forced to flee Copehagen for Paris, where Gerda's career reaches new highs as her devotion to her husband, who has disappeared and been replaced with Lili, is severely tested. Life isn't any better for Lili in Paris; she spends most of her days hiding out in her home and the one time she ventures out, she's accosted and beaten by a couple of French tough guys in a gazebo. Gerda reaches out to art dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Shoenaerts), Einar's childhood friend and the first boy Einar ever kissed during his earliest experiences of being Lili. Axgil's is a sympathetic friend, though the mutual attraction between Axgil and Gerda complicates Gerda's shaky, confusing marriage even further. Finally, Lili becomes one of the first-ever patients to undergo sex reassignment surgery, overseen by the kindly Professor Kurt Warnekros (Sebasitian Koch). Lili is free to finally live in the body she was always meant to have, albeit however briefly. 

The touching and daring performances by Redmayne and Vikander as they struggle to navigate the heartbreaking confusion of Lili's painful but liberating acceptance of her gender identity are elevated by The Danish Girl's breathtaking cinematography. Director of Photography Danny Cohen composes scene after scene of stunning imagery, shooting the actors against sumptuous sets and gorgeous production design. As a film about painters, the cinematography of The Danish Girl is a fine art museum-quality visual delight. Cohen's tantalizing shots are a welcome relief from the film's torpid pace and abstruse subject matter. There's literally one lighthearted jest in The Danish Girl, when Axgil tells Lili "There are few people I've ever liked, and you've been two of them," a clever bon mot which lands with a big laugh in a film sorely lacking in a release from its stifling solemnity. A moment when Redmayne stands nude in front of the mirror and hides his genitals between his legs hits so close to Silence of the Lambs that one wonders whether Einar Wegener would have been a serial killer and patient of Hannibal Lecter if The Danish Girl were set 70 years later.