The Danish Girl


What makes a woman a woman?

What makes a woman a woman?

(2015) Historical Drama (Focus) Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Pip Torrens, Adrian Schiller, Jake Graf, Nicholas Woodeson, Philip Arditti, Sebastian Koch, Miltos Yerolemou, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Pixie, Angela Curran, Richard Dixon, Henry Pettigrew, Emerald Fennell, Nancy Crane, Clare Fettarappa, Victoria Emslie. Directed by Tom Hooper

Although transgender surgeries have become somewhat more commonplace now than they were say 50 years ago, transgenders haven’t really been accepted by mainstream society until recently and then only begrudgingly. While the media and cinema have turned their focus on LGBT issues in the wake of the legalization of same-sex marriage, there has been little attention paid to the “T” in LGBT until recently.

Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is well-respected in the Danish art world as a painter of landscapes; his wife Gerda (Vikander) is a portrait painter who has achieved less success. The two are madly in love with one another, and hang out at artistic events with their dancer friend Ulla (Heard). When Ulla is delayed from a portrait session due to a late rehearsal, an increasingly frustrated Gerda enlists her husband to put on Ulla’s stockings and shoes, and to hold her dress over his body so that she can continue painting.

The incident has a profound effect on Einar. He has always felt like there was something not quite right; his infertility, his somewhat effeminate manner, his desire for men (although his deepest love is reserved for Gerda). But there is someone inside him, someone that Ulla mischievously names Lily. As Ulla and Gerda persuade the somewhat introspective Einar to attend a party with them as Lily, he is at first thrilled at the scandalous air of it all, but soon he finds himself feeling more comfortable as a woman. As Einar begins to slowly be displaced by Lily, the relationship with Gerda is strained to the breaking point, but in the end she wants her husband to be happy. However, the only way for Lily to be fully free is to undertake a dangerous operation that has not been attempted before, or at least often.

The movie is based on a fictional account of the real Einar Wegener/Lily Elbe (she would take the name of the German river near the clinic where her sex change operations were performed). While Focus has been marketing this as a true story, the only things true about it are that there were once painters in Denmark named Einar Wegener and Gerda Wegener, they were once married to each other and Einar eventually changed into Lily Elbe.

So do take the “true story” thing with more than a grain of salt. If you are interested at all in the real story of Lily Elbe, I would suggest her autobiography Man Into Woman which is taken directly from her own journal entries and letters.

The movie is very much a love story, with Gerda at first hurt and dejected by her husband’s transformation, but eventually she accepts that Lily is literally not the man she married and becomes his staunchest ally, even when Lily is a bit of a jerk to her. Gerda proves to be the more interesting character in many ways; while the real Gerda was in all likelihood a lesbian who used her marriage to cover her sexual preferences and had a much more platonic relationship with Einar than was depicted here (their marriage was eventually annulled and by the time Einar began the first of his five operations, the two had separated permanently). Vikander has this year become an actress to watch based on the strength of a series of indelible performances and this one might be the best of the lot. She may not get an Oscar nom out of this but she will soon and many will follow, I’m sure, thereafter.

As good as Vikander is, Redmayne actually shows that his Oscar win last year for The Theory of Everything was hardly a fluke. Whereas that performance was more physically challenging, Redmayne shows himself to be a marvelous emotional actor, often capturing Lily’s inner dialogue in a single downward glance, a shy smile or a feminine gesture but mainly through his eyes, which are filled with torment but occasionally joy as Lily begins to discover who she truly is. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got another Best Actor nomination for this role.

There is a strong supporting cast with Schoenaerts as a childhood friend of Einar’s who becomes enmeshed in the private hell that he and Gerda have entered, Whishaw as a homosexual who develops feelings for Einar/Lily, and Koch as the sympathetic surgeon who alone doesn’t think that Einar should be committed to an insane asylum.

The performances here are above reproach, but there is a curious atmosphere here. While Einar and Gerda and their friends were clearly Bohemian sorts, there is an odd mannered kind of style here which comes off as emotionally distant in places. The pacing is erratic and I don’t think that the writers and Hooper were entirely successful at getting to the turmoil within Gerda and Einar as Lily begins to take over their lives. We do see some conflict, but it’s more petulant than thoughtful.

Nonetheless, this is a good film although not in my opinion a great one and considering the acting proficiency going on here, it should have been. I wanted to like it more but I left the theater feeling curiously unmoved. There is a Hollywood gloss over this; I think the filmmakers would have been better served to tell the real stories of Lily and Gerda rather than this made up schmaltz fest that they decided to go with. In many ways, they do a disservice to the bravery of Lily Elbe and the first transgenders by turning her story into a kind of love story that her relationship with Gerda really didn’t support. Truth is often better than fiction and in this case I believe it would have been.

REASONS TO GO: Excellent performances by Redmayne and Vikander. A powerful love story.
REASONS TO STAY: So mannered that it seems to lack passion at times.
FAMILY VALUES: Strong sexuality and some graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project was originally developed by Nicole Kidman who wanted to direct and star as Lily in the project but she was unable to get financing. When Hooper came aboard, he cast Redmayne in the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Single Man
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Sisters

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Big Eyes


Amy Adams doesn't want to part with this prop, although Christoph Waltz reassures her.

Amy Adams doesn’t want to part with this prop, although Christoph Waltz reassures her.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Jon Polito, Elizabeth Fantone, James Saito, Guido Furlani, Delaney Raye, Madeline Arthur, Emily Bruhn, Alan MacFarlane, Tony Alcantar, Jaden Alexander, Andrew Airlie, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Stephanie Bennett, Andrea Bucko. Directed by Tim Burton

Art is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. The big-eyed waifs painted by Keane were, in the 1950s and 1960s, highly sought-after. Prints and posters hung in many homes and the originals were highly sought-after by collectors. Walter Keane was one of the first to commercialize art in many ways, leading the way for guys like Andy Warhol and Robert Wyland. There are those who would sniff that Keane’s vision was more kitsch than art and doesn’t hold up over the years. But Keane held a secret much deeper than that.

Margaret Ulbrich (Adams) has fled an abusive marriage, taking her daughter Jane (Raye) to San Francisco where her friend DeeAnn (Ritter) is overjoyed to see her out on her own. Margaret loves to paint but she’s forced to take a mundane job to support her daughter, but still continues to paint and sells her art in the park on weekends. There she meets Walter Keane (Waltz), a charming and outgoing man who claims he once studied to paint in Paris. He’s a born salesman and at the moment he’s selling himself. Margaret, who knows that a divorcee with a daughter isn’t going to be attracting a lot of romantic attention, marries Walter despite DeeAnn’s misgivings.

Soon Margaret starts painting a series of sad children with oversized eyes. Walter is painting his landscapes and both are not really selling much of anything. Walter manages to wrangle Enrico Banducci (Polito), the owner of one of the city’s iconic jazz clubs, to hang some of the artwork in the club where Walter can ostensibly sell it, but the place the art gets hung – a corridor leading to the bathrooms – isn’t exactly the place where people look for artwork. However after a staged row gets more customers into the club to see the fireworks between Banducci and Walter some attention gets paid to the art.

But not Walter’s art – Margaret’s. Soon her artwork begins selling like hotcakes and in a moment of perhaps panic but more likely pride, Walter claims that he is the artist that painted the waifs. Soon, there is huge demand for these paintings and Walter opens up a gallery. When people start stealing posters and postcards, he begins charging for them. Before long, the waifs are an international phenomenon.

For Margaret, success is bittersweet. The money is nice and the recognition is terrific, but nobody is recognizing her. It’s Walter reaping the success, Walter getting the recognition. Even a now-grown Jane (Arthur) recognizes that her mother is being screwed. Walter’s increasingly bizarre behavior, brought on by drinking, becomes too much. Margaret leaves and takes Jane with her to Hawaii, but Walter needs her paintings to fuel his income. The arrangement seems to work but it becomes clear that keeping the secret is a terrible burden for Margaret. When the truth comes out, where will the chips end up?

Burton has always been the kind of director whose films you can tell instantly are his, even if you don’t know what you’re seeing. He outdoes himself here – not so much with the semi-Gothic look of some of his movies, not even in his fascination with kitsch which is certainly present here, but in his use of color. Every shot is like a painting, with the colors melding together in not only the set design and the costumes but even down to the lighting. Burton’s eye is exquisite.

The story is based on Margaret’s memoirs and thus Walter is given short shrift in many ways. The point of view is strictly Margaret’s and while some of Walter’s family have complained that the film portrayed him as a talentless hack and even that he taught Margaret how to draw the waifs (which he was unable to reproduce in court during the libel trial that is depicted at the end of this film), all I can say is that you don’t go to the movies to seek the truth, merely an aspect of it, a perspective on it. And who’s to say what the truth is? There’s Margaret’s story, Walter’s story and somewhere in between is the reality of what actually happened.

Adams is one of my favorite actresses and she gives a solid though unspectacular performance as Margaret. Margaret is the mousy submissive 50s housewife through much of the movie and that can impede a performance if one is constantly looking down at the floor miserably, but Adams does eventually give Margaret some spunk which shows through in different often unsettling ways. Waltz, who I almost always enjoy, is a bit miscast here; while he has the charisma and charm to pull that aspect of Walter off, sometimes he’s so overpowering that the movie tilts a bit in the wrong direction. Less would have been more in this case. Also, both have trouble maintaining their accents as Waltz’ Austrian accent sometimes slips out and Adams’ Tennessee accent sometimes slips away. A bit more consistency would have been nice.

Like Ed Wood (whose writers co-wrote this film), Burton shows an unusual sympathy for those outside the system, those relegated to freak show status. The Keanes operated outside the normal boundaries of the art world back then, as represented by a snooty art critic (Stamp) and a snobby gallery owner (Schwartzman) and more or less clawed their way to the top. There is no doubt that Walter was an excellent promoter and while his actions may have been reprehensible, once in awhile you get a glimpse of the insecurities within that may well have fueled his behavior and Big Eyes succeeds very well there. This isn’t Burton’s best work, but it is his best in quite awhile.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously shot. Champions the outsider once again. Captures the kitsch of the era nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally an accent drops. Waltz is unusually out-of-step.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of harsh language and the themes can be pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Margaret Keane can be seen reading a book on a park bench in the scene when Walter and Margaret are painting in front of the Palace of Fine Arts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ed Wood
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Exodus: Gods and Kings