(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