Monday, December 05, 2016

Great (Well, Pretty Good, At Least) Dane

Almost every Oscar season has at least one film that, while excluded from the Best Picture race, is lauded for multiple performances. Most recently, The Danish Girl was one of those films. It tells the true story* of Lili Elbe, the first person** to undergo sex reassignment*** surgery.

Those various asterisks illuminate some of the reasons this film may have been excluded from Best Picture contention. First, * -- this story is fictionalized, based on a novel by David Ebershoff that took considerable liberties with the actual facts. Second, ** -- though much of the talk around this film anointed Lili Elbe as the "first" to undergo surgery, that also isn't factually accurate. Third, *** -- such surgeries are often called "gender confirmation" procedures in our more enlightened age, though some aspects of Lili's character in the film belie this more affirmative terminology.

If you head into the movie with eyes open, knowing it's not quite reality, and accepting that it may not be authentic to the experience of most modern transgender people, then the film is commendable on many levels. Seeing past those shortcomings might admittedly be a big ask; certainly, those issues could spark a worthy discussion of whether a largely positive on-screen representation (even if flawed) is to be praised and encouraged. It's a discussion I don't think I could do justice to here.

So instead, I will say that the movie does spin a moving tale, regardless of how much is fact and how much is fiction. The journey that Einar Wegener takes to become Lili Elbe is emotional, filled with highs and lows. And I also the Oscars were very right to single out the actors as key to making the movie work.

Eddie Redmayne plays Einar/Lili, and gives a strong performance. Praising Redmayne's work does lead to still more fair discussion points -- the appropriateness of casting a cisgender actor to play a transgender character, and whether the century-old period setting of this story affects that question in any way. Regardless of whether you see no problem here, or think Redmayne's casting is as offensive as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, the fact remains that Redmayne's work here is excellent: soulful and sympathetic.

But Oscar also got it right in giving a nomination only to Redmayne, and giving an actual win, for Best Supporting Actress, to Alicia Vikander. That's because Vikander, as Einar's wife Gerda, gives an even stronger performance across the board. (And the only controversy there is that she was in the "Supporting" category for what is clearly a Lead role.) Gerda is an even stronger character, even more sympathetic. Vikander lands every moment of the emotional wringer her character goes through, trying to understand how to help the person she loves. As good as Redmayne may be in this movie, one could imagine other performers doing as well with the material. But I'm hard-pressed to think of anyone else that could do what Vikander does here.

Ultimately, the audience for this movie is probably rather narrow. I say that not because it's about a transgender woman, but because it's a sometimes stilted period piece, very much about subtle and close-up acting. I'd give it a B+, though I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to everybody.

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