Thursday, 14 January 2016

The Danish Girl

Tom Hooper's last two features prior to The Danish Girl were both lavish, period pieces that tugged at the heartstrings in all the right ways as well as telling powerful stories supremely well. The King's Speech seemed like pure Oscar-bait, yet Hooper transformed it into an affecting tale of courage packed with powerhouse performances and a surprising amount of comedy. Les Miserables was a whirlwind cinema experience, again filled with breathtaking performances but also some seriously impressive technical triumphs too. The Danish Girl is Hooper's third consecutive period film, and it's frustrating that it doesn't even come close to the standard he set with his first two. Much like his prior two films, The Danish Girl is exquisitely performed by all involved, but it lacks the effective storytelling and impressive technicalities that made The King's Speech and Les Miserables so affecting.

Telling the story of one of the first known people to undergo sex reassignment surgery, the film begins in mid 1920's Copenhagen, as we follow the lives of Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander). We then watch as Einar journeys into learning and discovering more about who he is, before he fully realises that he is truly Lili Elbe, a character he and his wife originally made up to assist her painting. One of The Danish Girl's biggest issues is this narrative structure, which whilst seemingly okay to begin with soon begins to plague how the story is told in its second and third acts. There isn't really anywhere for the film to go. There's no driving force to keep you interested, no real narrative developments to allow the story to move from point A to point B. I'm not asking for a surprise twist at the end of the second act, but Hooper's narrative structure bogs the entire film down come the second half and it makes for rather uninspired viewing.

What makes this doubly frustrating is how powerful this story could be. Over dramatization can sometimes be an issue in itself, but The Danish Girl underplays its emotion a great deal. Lili's struggle is never truly felt, Gerda's conflicting opinions only occasionally surface. Despite the superb performances that these two actors give (which we'll come to in more detail soon), the film's screenplay by Lucinda Coxon fails to give them the material they need to truly sell each moment. Couple this with the bland, uninspired approach to storytelling that this film boasts and you're left with a truly compelling real story that is never given the power it deserves. A good film narrative raises the stakes as it furthers itself, we journey with the characters as their conflicts and issues become greater and greater. The Danish Girl seems set to follow this pattern, but soon gives up and creates a somewhat monotonous experience.

Yet, there remains elements of this film that simply cannot be faulted. The Danish Girl's cinematography may not be revolutionary, but it does a good job of livening up a fair number of sequences that desperately needed livening up. The majority of the establishing shots that open most of the film's sequences are reminiscent of paintings, the film uses faded colour schemes and unusual angles to really sell the artistic nature of it all. The fact that this occurs in a film where the two lead protagonists are painters makes this an even nicer touch. Speaking of nice touches, Hooper adds some small but effective elements in the film's opening half that come back in play later on. Very early on in the film Einar runs his hand thoughtlessly along a dress rack, yet later on when he does the same thing you can see how much he has changed in such a short space of time. It's small tricks like this that the film needed more of to really sell this story, but unfortunately Hooper just doesn't seem as interested in his subject matter as a director should be.

Where this film does truly excel, though, is in its performances. Eddie Redmayne has lately established himself as a wonderful actor, and The Danish Girl is no exception. Even when the script lets him down, he manages to portray an incredible amount of emotion on his face and with his voice. When he first becomes Lili on screen, Redmayne allows her vulnerability to show and it makes for one of the rare emotionally affecting scenes the film offers. When Lili is about to begin her treatment near the film's climax Lili talks freely with other women, and again Redmayne perfectly portrays the journey she has undertaken. It's a quiet, delicate performance, and it's fascinating to watch. Vikander is similarly excellent, whenever the film asks something big of her she sells it entirely. Her inner turmoil is never really focused on, yet Vikander manages to portray this even in scenes that don't ask it of her. Both give breathtaking performances across the whole film, which is why it's so disappointing that the direction and scripting never really bring this story to life. Whilst it's never exactly dull it still could have been something special and something truly captivating, but The Danish Girl's spark never ignites.

To Summarise: The Danish Girl benefits from stunning imagery, superlative performances from its leads and an interesting true story, but its scattershot scripting and underwhelming narrative structure force it far away from the film it should have been.

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