The Danish Girl
Eddie Redmayne, last year’s Oscar winning Best Actor, chose to play the lead here, in director Tom Hooper’s examination of the first person to undergo verifiable sex reassignment surgery. Hooper’s previous films (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables, and the sadly underrated The Damned United) suggest someone quite comfortable in presenting nuanced characters and that must have been the reason Redmayne decided to participate in a project as potentially risky as this one. Yet despite a pair acting nominations, Danish Girl fails –in large part because of Hooper’s casting choice and Lucinda Coxon’s coyly melodramatic adaptation of David Ebershoff’s novel about the life and marriage of Danish landscape artist Einar Wegener and his wife Gerda.
Wegener and Gerda, a prominent illustrator in her own right, met while students at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. They married in 1904 when he was 22 and Gerda was 19 and then spent the next 20 years living primarily in Paris. Wegener became Lily in a then-scandalous series of 4 operations spread over two years and died when her immune system rejected the implants related to her treatment.
Given the broader current acceptance of gender issues, the timing of this film was perfect, but Hooper’s insistence on focusing Redmayne’s performance on nuances of gesture, facial expression and barely audible dialogue result in a depiction based on physical traits rather than the far more substantive implications of the Wegener’s struggle for valid self-identification. That leaves no choice but to focus on Redmayne’s skills as a female impersonator, causing the audience to cringe rather than applaud the efforts of an otherwise commendable actor. Again and again Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen return to Redmayne’s coy mannerisms and exaggerated flounces which grow glaringly false when compared to the no-nonsense portrayal of Gerda by Alicia Vikander, whose performance has garnered a Best Supporting Actor nomination. As the movie grinds slowly to its over-wrought climax, the chasm between Redmayne’s artificiality and Vikander’s vibrant realism yawns larger and larger.
Shot on a modest production budget in Copenhagen, Brussels and London, The Danish Girl features sets and costumes that fit it’s theme perfectly, making the awkward performance of its lead all the more disappointing. Actors always take risks in front of the camera, but based on his previous work with Hooper in Les Mis, Redmayne should have emphatically declined to participate in this one.
The Verdict? An overlong and overwrought examination of a sensitive subject that would have been better presented by more creative talent in script, direction and performance.
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