Thursday, December 17, 2015

A classy but staid 'Danish Girl'

It looks great, the performances are solid, but early story of a transgender heroine doesn't quite connect.

Einar Wegener was as one of the first people to undergo gender-altering surgery. An artist working in Denmark during the 1920s, Wegener transformed himself into Lili Elbe as he gradually changed his style of dress, added wigs to his wardrobe and ultimately elected to have the surgery that would complete his transition.

According to The Danish Girl, a movie that focuses on Lili's struggle, Elbe died of complications resulting from a succession of difficult surgical procedures, namely the one that was intended to give her a vagina.

As directed by Tom Hooper (The King's Speech), The Danish Girl -- a fictionalized account of Lili's life based on a novel by David Ebershoff -- seems to value classy presentation as much as the emotional dynamics of a story that -- by the end -- becomes an anthem for those who regard their biological genders as mistakes.

Fresh from his Oscar-winning turn as Steven Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne portrays Einar who, during the course of the movie, becomes Lili. Alicia Vikander portrays Gerda, a lively and spirited artist who's married to Einar and who remains loyal to Einar/Lili throughout.

The movie makes it seem as if Einar discovers his true gender identity almost by chance. Early on, Gerda's seen working on a large painting of a ballet dancer. When one of her models fails to show up, Gerda asks Einar to put on a pair of stockings and serve as her leg model.

We know from the rapturous, trembling expression on Einar's face that he's begun to acknowledge that he's a woman mistakenly lodged in a man's body.

At first, Einar and Gerda have a good time with Einar's fascinations. Gerda even encourages her husband's interests, suggesting he dress as a woman to attend an annual artists' ball. They'll pass Lili off as a visiting cousin.

At this point, both husband and wife treat Einar and Lili as separate characters, one real, the other, an amusing pose.

Hints of discord arise when Gerda sees Lili kissing a young man (Ben Whishaw) at the artists' ball. Doubts suddenly arise about which part of Einer's dual identity is real and which, a sham.

Redmayne's performance involves a lot of whispered dialogue, and intense observation: He frequently watches women to see how they move, trying to teach himself the externalities of the gender to which he believes he truly was born.

Redmayne's concentrated performance has a dual effect. It makes us wonder how much of what we consider "natural" gender behavior is merely an accumulation of learned gestures.

But this approach also focuses our attention on Redmayne's performance as much as it takes us into the psyche of a character named Lili Elbe.

Vikander gives the movie much of its life, particularly as the couple begins to confront a medical world which either wants to cure Einar of his "perversion" or have him committed to an asylum.

When the couple travels to Paris so that Gerda can exhibit her work, a relationship between Gerda and one of Einar's childhood friends (Matthias Schoenaerts) develops: Schoenaerts' Hans Axgil, a Parisian art dealer, offers emotional support to both Gerda and Lili.

Eventually, Lili and Gerda meet a surgeon (Sebastian Koch) who has been experimenting in gender reassignment surgery. He believes that Lili is precisely what she thinks she is: a woman in a man's body. Lili's willing to brave the risks of surgery to achieve her dream.

Beautifully composed and meticulously upholstered with period detail, The Danish Girl feels like three-quarters of a fine movie: Perhaps Hopper tried so hard to keep things under control that he's locked Lili's pain safely in the past.

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