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Review – The Danish Girl (15) [2016]

The Danish Girl - title banner

Star Rating: 3/5

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2015 was the year that the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) movement took on global significance. Thanks to Bruce Jenner’s successful transition into Caitlyn, the world took note of the LGBT movement and the problems that many transgender people sadly face. The release of Director Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, therefore, could not have come at a more opportune moment. But does the film grab the moment with both hands?

Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), before his transformation, painting a view of his small hometown area.

Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), before his transformation, painting a view of his small hometown area.

The Danish Girl is a biopic based on a true story about Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne). Einar is a talented artist living with his artist wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), in Copenhagen in 1926. One day, Gerda asks Einar to put on women’s shoes and a dress so she can paint him as a woman called Lili Elbe. This awakens another side of Einar. Within five years, Einar decides to be the first known man to undergo transgender surgery.

The Danish Girl begins in engaging fashion. Eddie Redmayne’s and Alicia Vikander’s characters have excellent on-screen chemistry. They enjoy witty, provocative conversations that show how much they are in love with one another. Indeed, the dialogue throughout the first thirty minutes of the film is filled with sexually tantalising lines that will enable audiences to warm to the characters.

However, the rest of the film’s two-hour runtime is not half as engaging. Tom Hooper does not have much story to work with and (unbelievably) it is when Redmayne/Einar starts to cross-dress that the problems with the movie begin. Problem one is that the provocative dialogue comes to an abrupt halt. This means that everything one came to love about the characters ends at once. That the dialogue turns soppy makes one want to cry with despair. (Some of what is said in the film is allegedly true, but it is still awfully slushy. Also, Hooper adjusts the story to suit his ends, so couldn’t he have at least kept the provocative dialogue?)

Einar holding a dress as his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), draws him as a woman. Holding the dress, however, awakens Lili.

Einar holding a dress as his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), draws him as a woman. Holding the dress, however, awakens Lili.

Problem two with the movie is that Eddie Redmayne starts over-acting. This makes it look like lunacy is taking hold of him; yet, this same over-acting also makes him look noticeably wooden, especially when he transforms into Lili.

And problem three is that Redmayne’s Lili is not a particularly likeable or sympathetic person. She becomes totally self-absorbed, selfish and utterly uncaring for the hurt she causes Gerda, despite having been married to her for many years. Lili’s behaviour has the effect of pushing viewers away from her and the issues she embodies. (Seriously, if a normal man behaved as Lili does, he would be deemed a selfish prick and rightly so; and if a normal woman behaved like that, she would be called a horrible bitch and rightly so. Just because Lili is a transgender person does not exempt her from behaving in a considerate manner.) At a time when the LGBT movement is trying to gain steam to diminish the discrimination and violence that transgender people unfortunately suffer, Lili’s behaviour could be detrimental to the movement’s cause.

Lili’s behaviour also raises another matter unwittingly: the effect that changing gender can have on those whom the transgender person loves. Whether it be a parent or sibling (as was the case for Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner), or a partner (as it was for Gerda), the effects can be emotionally tough, if not crushing. For Gerda, as portrayed in the movie, it is heart-breaking as she loses the man she loves. Alicia Vikander portrays the hurt that Gerda must have felt with raw force. Surprisingly, it is her and Gerda who come out with the most credit from this movie. Thanks to Vikander, Gerda’s pain is real and understandable; whereas Redmayne cannot convincingly convey Lili’s pain, since her emotional pain seems contrived and unnecessary by comparison, like the stroppiness of an adolescent youth.

On the left, Eddie Redmayne's Lili as seen in the film; and on the right, the real Lili Elbe.

On the left, Eddie Redmayne’s Lili as seen in the film; and on the right, the real Lili Elbe.

How much one can blame Redmayne for this is debatable. He is, after-all, being directed by Tom Hooper and this is not Hooper’s finest film. Yes, it is shot decently, but the stance the film takes toward Lili is confusing. Is The Danish Girl supposed to be a sympathetic, objective, positive or critical portrayal of Lili (and of transgender people on the whole by extension)? If it is trying to achieve all four, Hooper can claim mediocre success at best and a mediocre mawkish muddle at worst.

Over-all, The Danish Girl is a disappointing film. Alicia Vikander is brilliant and the movie starts off in promising fashion with exceptional dialogue. But before long, the film loses its way and turns into a pitiful sop story; one that is enough to test the patience of even the most tolerant of viewers.

Central to the testing nature of the film is the titular Danish girl, herself: Lili Elbe. She might have been the first man to undergo transgender surgery and she might be a pioneer for the LGBT movement today. But she was neither a nice nor considerate person in real life. It can only be hoped that most transgender people are not like her. Otherwise, the momentum that Caitlyn Jenner and the LGBT movement have gathered over the last year will be undone and smothered for a generation.

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Review – Les Misérables (12a) [2013]

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Star Rating: 4/5

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At the beginning of 2012, audiences were treated to the silent film, The Artist. It was unexpectedly charming and something different in an age of formulaic, clichéd blockbusters. A year on, and audiences are treated to something different once again in the form of the marvellous Les Misérables.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), looking like a scraggy vagabond, as a convicted criminal about to be released on parole.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), looking like a scraggy vagabond, as a convicted criminal about to be released on parole.

The storyline is based upon the 1862 historical-fiction novel by Victor Hugo and the subsequent theatre production. It loosely centres round Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and Javier (Russell Crowe). Jean Valjean is a convicted man, who breaks his parole and seemingly vanishes in his bid to start a new life. Javier, the Inspector, upon discovering what Jean Valjean has done, is determined to find Prisoner 24601 and bring him to justice.

The plot for Les Misérables is more detailed and layered than that, especially as it has a large cast all with roles to play before the story ends. Unlike the stage version, the film does a good job of keeping the narrative understandable and easy to follow, despite having to take out chunks from the book. This is no small achievement, considering that more or less the entire movie is sung. Credit should rightly go to Tom Hooper for this, as well as for successfully turning a theatrical play into an Oscar-nominated film. (It should be borne in mind that The Woman In Black was the last time a director attempted to translate a play into a movie, and the less said about that film the better!)

However, in spite of Hooper cutting out sections of the book, the film still seems too long and somehow bloated at 158 minutes. The Artist, it should be noted, is only 100 minutes and, consequently, does not feel over-stuffed. Part of the reason for why Les Misérables feels this way is due to the numerous sub-plots taking place throughout the story, many of which have only questionable importance to its outcome.

Inspector Javier (Russell Crowe), wearing almost the identical garb of the former (and now fallen) Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte I, on the lookout for Jean Valjean.

Inspector Javier (Russell Crowe), wearing almost the identical garb of the former (and now fallen) Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte I, on the lookout for Jean Valjean.

Yet, more significantly, does the story actually matter? When one watches Les Misérables in the theatre, one is more likely to be awed by the music and the mechanics of the stage, than taken in by the (slightly contrived) narrative. But the movie does not have an innovatively-devised podium. Additionally, it suffers from a cast that, while stellar in name, generally lack the powerful vocals of their stage counterparts.

Russell ‘wannabe-Napoleon Bonaparte’ Crowe and Hugh Jackman, the two leading men, are particularly guilty of this. It is not that their performances are bad, it is just painfully obvious that they are actors first and singers a distant second. One might argue that this is what Hooper desired as he claimed to want the vocals ‘raw’ and conversational, rather than melodramatic. (Then again, he could have been saying this as a defence of his cast, in hindsight, after realising that he should have used stage actors instead of Crowe and Jackman.)

Also, the more one sees and hears the supporting cast, the more Crowe and Jackman are shown up; in particular, against Anne Hathaway. Hathaway, as Fantine, might look pale and terribly thin with her skin, bone and flesh emaciated a la Natalie Portman in Black Swan, but she most certainly can sing. In Rio I, Hathaway showed that she can sing well and nicely. But in Les Misérables she takes her talents to a new level, acquiring immense vigour in her voice, despite clearly lacking in nourishment.

No-one else looks starved like her, but Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks, as the rebel Marius and Éponine, respectively, have very good voices; Amanda Seyfried, as Cosette, illustrates that she’s a better singer than actor (and that she can exist without her incongruous pink lip-gloss, unlike in the medieval-themed Red Riding Hood); while Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier, respectively, show us that they may not have noteworthy vocals, but that they can still make us laugh whilst in tune.

Jean Valjean, now all cleaned up and living a new life under a false name, holding a poorly street-woman, who just so happens to be Fantine (Anne Hathaway).

Jean Valjean, now all cleaned up and living a new life under a false name, holding a poorly street-woman, who just so happens to be Fantine (Anne Hathaway).

Yet, if one is truly bothered about the singing not being up to scratch with the stage performers, one can still admire the sceneries and the visuals. Cinema, as opposed to theatre, is not limited by the area of a stage (however impressive the mechanics of it may be), and Hooper uses this to his advantage to give viewers a true feel for the (miserable) neighbourhoods that our characters come from in a way that the theatre perhaps can’t convey as deeply.

All-in-all, Les Misérables is very impressive theatrical production-cum-film. The cast’s vocals may not be as strong as those actors on the stage, and the movie lacks some of the charms of the theatre. Nevertheless, like The Artist, Les Misérables is something different, and it should be celebrated that an operatic-style film can be delivered in such a superb and entertaining manner.

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