This weekend I sought out a viewing of The Danish Girl, which while a bit difficult to find, it truly is a must see performance, and picture for that matter. For those that are not familiar with the film, it explores one of the most discussed social issues of today, sexual identity and gender reassignment, through the life of the first person to undergo a sex-change operation in the mid 1920’s. While the concept in itself is interesting, no matter which direction it could have went in, the writer of the film, Lucinda Coxon, used the source material (from a book of the same name) to depict a strong character driven story instead of the traditional story driven biopic that these type of films tend to devolve into. While the cast was given a good jumping off point due to the characters that were created in the screenplay, the power and emotion behind these characters was only brought to its peak as a result of Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander’s performances.
Usually when a writer attempts to adapt a story from a real life situation, like in The Danish Girl, the focus becomes more about the events that are unfolding since many do not often know about the first person to undergo a sex change but instead are more interested in the event and the surrounding story. As a result, the screenplay becomes quite event driven and the process of characterization is inherently absent or all together poor. Now, if the film did attempt to go this route, I do not think that it would be successful as there still remains a stigma around the main topic of the film, causing many to disengage with the film instantly because of their political and social views. However, by making the audience feel and care about the characters as humans, the writer is able to remove the political ramifications of the film in a larger sense and instead see that the more individualized theme of the film is simply finding happiness, which I believe any audience member will relate to. Although, it may seem like solving this roadblock may be the end of the writer’s troubles, it is not even close. Once this crisis is solved all the writer really has is a theme to explore, which is just the starting point for films about more accepted topics. Now, the writer is tasked with creating characters that are not only able to explore the theme of the film, but also the writer must keep the lead character relatable to the audience even though the character is experiencing something most of the audience has not been exposed to. Fortunately, Coxon, through the use of the films two lead characters, is able to execute both of these goals.
With most films, the lead character undergoes a steady physical or mental (sometimes both) transformation throughout the course of the film that the audience is able to observe clearly, and in doing so they can understand the emotions and actions of the character. If this transformation is too quick, or disjointed then the audience can be left confused, or unsure of what they are supposed to be feeling from the film. This is where a lot of films fail. Now because of the nature of the film’s story the main character does not quite understand who they are throughout most of the film and as a result appears very different from scene to scene due to their internal battle they are facing. This can serve as an obstacle for a film because the audience may have difficulty understanding a character and thus loosing their intimate connection to the story. Yet, this does not occur in the Danish Girl because the writer, Lucinda Coxon, shifts the responsibility of a character having to connect with the audience off of the main character of Lili, and instead onto the character of Gerda, Lili’s wife. As a result of this shift, Coxon is able to fully allow the character of Lili to continuously shift from mental state to mental state while maintaining the audience’s intimacy to the film through Gerda. Now the reason that the audience is able to connect with Gerda is because she is just as inexperienced with the situation as the audience is. Like the audience, she is unsure what the day-to-day mindset of Lili will be and as a result she exhibits the same confusion as the audience and together throughout the course of the film both the audience and Gerda become more knowledgeable. In short, Gerda is the manifestation of the audience in the film. Interestingly enough, in the third act of the film, Lili and Gerda’s roles reverse, as Lili finally becomes who she is and Gerda is unsure of her place in Lili’s life. Once this occurs the connection between the audience and the film breaks and when they look to rediscover the connection, they find Lili is the stable one as see she has finally found her identity. This allows the audience to understand why the proper course of action for Lili was to undergo a sex change.
Not to take away from Lucinda Coxon, as she truly deserves to be praised for the screenplay that she put together, but in order for her plan to navigate the subject matter to work, it relied on the performances of the actors to call upon the audience’s emotions perfectly. Riding off of last year’s Academy Award win for best actor, Eddie Redmayne is able to capture his character perfectly. For the story to work, the audience must fully believe that the character of Einar feels more secure being Lili, a woman, than he does a man. To make this work, Redamayne must convince the audience that they are not watching a man portray a woman but are watching a character that only feels comfortable as a woman. And of course, Redmayne does so marvelously and really it is not even possible to dissect how he does. Redmayne’s acting within the film just feels so natural as it is evident that he really understands the interworkings of his character. Although Redmayne’s acting was superb, Vikander pulls her own weight and delivers her own over the top performance as well. Remember, the audience needs to connect with her emotionally in order for the story to work as well. Again, like Redmayne, she perfectly captures the interworking of her character as she struggles to understand the situation she has found herself in. While it is easier to see and appreciate the performances of the two lead characters, the rest of the supporting cast was top notch as well in the limited screen time they were given as well.
Realistically, The Danish Girl was one of the highlights of film in 2015. The story was beautifully adapted to perfectly sidestep the politics behind the films premise in order to appeal to a larger demographic. In addition, the performances by both Redmayne and Vikander are enough for each to win the Academy Award for their respective category. In fact, the film itself deserved to at least be in the conversation for best picture as the only flaw was its pacing, which felt slow at times but even that could be overlooked as Tom Hooper beautifully lit every scene. With all of this taken into consideration, the slow pacing that was felt at times is not enough to detract from the high caliber writing, acting, and directing therefore, Celluloid Cinema awards The Danish Girl 5 out of 5 Reels, as it truly is one of the best films of 2015.
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