Andrew Rostan was a film student before he realized that making comics was his horrible destiny, and he’s never shaken his love of cinema. Every week, he’ll opine on current pictures or important movies from the past.
My critical role here at the Addison Recorder runs headlong into my long, complex history with The Danish Girl, a film that has followed me around for nearly a decade and left me with me an impression as great as that made by Red Desert. I recommend this movie, but I am grateful today to have this venue to explain why.
Two Life Experiences
January 2007 found me a fresh arrival in Los Angeles, with my final college semester and my Jeopardy appearance both impending. The only thing missing was the internship I needed to fulfill my degree requirements. At the last minute, I was accepted as the new assistant at Pretty Pictures, the production company co-founded by Neil LaBute, who had since departed, and Gail Mutrux. The first week on the job, as a sort of test of my sensibilities, Gail gave me a screenplay she’d been developing for two years, one LaBute had passed on directing so he could helm The Wicker Man instead.
Lucinda Coxon’s adaptation of David Ebershoff’s The Danish Girl entranced me. I’d been devouring novels and scripts all through college but I’d never read one like this before. The story of artist Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment, was full of characters and themes I’d never seen given such serious treatment before, and Coxon’s writing was concise, terrifically structured, and very emotional. It was one of the finest screenplays I’d ever read, and it never left my mind.
(I will report that the screenplay is still mostly outstanding in all the above categories. Its one flaw is that all of the characters outside of the central trio are written with a scantiness that does not let them make an impression, and thus Amber Heard and Ben Whishaw are wasted in their roles.)
Eight years later, The Danish Girl went into production with Gail in charge, and I was thrilled and excited…until a rising tide of criticism appeared. Social attitudes had come far enough that the transgender themes no longer seemed that revolutionary (although the story was still fascinating), and now that there were working actors who openly identified as trans, the question rose of why Eddie Redmayne was playing Einar/Lili. I had mixed feelings about this: on the one hand, I understood the business decision of casting a freshly-minted Oscar-winner who could pull off androgyny. On the other hand, by this point I had made friends who identified as trans or gender-fluid, and I could sympathize with the metaphorical slap in the face of casting a cisgendered man in the role.
It was not until I saw The Danish Girl that I fully understood how warranted the criticism was.
Eddie Redmayne Drops the Ball
I like Eddie Redmayne. He can really deliver “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” and I thought he was excellent in The Theory of Everything, capturing both the physical decline of ALS and the mannerisms and speaking of a confidently intelligent but socially awkward individual. His performance in The Danish Girl is a fascinating failure.
There is a scene in which Einar goes to a succession of doctors trying to figure out what precisely is wrong with him and one labels him schizophrenic. This term very much fits Redmayne. He clearly wants to differentiate between Einar and Lili, and so for Einar he ups the physical acting he employed to play Stephen Hawking with disastrous results. His eyes are hyperactive, his mouth purses and stretches, his face contorts, and his body makes awkward poses. No matter how sincerely he speaks Coxon’s dialogue, his accompanying movement and occasional overuse of vocal dynamics get in the way, culminating in the most uncomfortable frontal nude scene I may ever witness.
The shame of it is that as Lili, Redmayne is so much better—gentle, assertive, and confident. The contrast with Einar, however, reinforces how Redmayne is playing a part and actively creating this dichotomy. He rejects the emotional and psychological connection of Einar and Lili, and the result is an artificial feel to what should have been a very natural turn. It reminds the audience that they are not watching an actual transgender person. This state of affairs lets down both the real historical figure and the movie itself.
Touches of Excellence
While Redmayne’s centrality dooms The Danish Girl, there are other people involved in the production who do Coxon’s script justice. Tom Hooper has made his least annoying production since John Adams. There are still stray Dutch angles, and the ghost of Les Miserables appears to haunt him, as he appears to be urging his cast to emote to the fullest—if someone cries, you see a very splashy face. However, Hooper mostly sticks to a sharp, grand-scale style that draws attention the characters and the rich environments designed by Eve Stewart rather than his technique. This may in large part be due to Hooper’s longtime cinematographer Danny Cohen—between his artistry here and in Room, Cohen may be the most unsung film hero of 2015.
Moreover, Redmayne’s acting contrasts with that of his two biggest co-stars. Alicia Vikander, who exploded this year, is as excellent as Redmayne is disappointing. Her Gerda Wegener mixes a soft, loving, almost childlike demeanor with a steely core, and Vikander conveys the struggle Gerda faces to both support the man she loves and follow her own desires with an honesty and subtlety her co-star lacks. She brings the movie the naturalness it needs, and her quiet, shining face is the most commanding aspect on display. And as Hans, Einar’s supportive childhood friend who unexpectedly falls for Gerda, Belgian star Matthias Schoenaerts is meant to cut a dashing figure that surprises us with his emotional depths, and he succeeds while also delivering my favorite line in the script, one that stuck in my mind over the decade: “I’ve only liked a handful of people in my life, and you’ve been two of them.”
The Danish Girl is ultimately not the masterpiece I had envisioned it would be, but it is a film with much that is good, and is more memorable than many other biopics thanks to the screenplay, the production, and Alicia Vikander. Now if Redmayne can learn to stop overacting, we’ll be set…although his style seems perfect for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Pictures from Comingsoon.net, Hitfix, Screenrant, and Variety.