45 YEARS and THE DANISH GIRL

Now laughing friends deride
Tears I cannot hide
Oh, so I smile and say
When a lovely flame dies
Smoke gets in your eyes

I left the theater completely thrown that 45 Years ends where it does. That wasn’t the end of their story, I said to myself. Even the most antagonistic movie couples, from Scarlett and Rhett to George and Martha, find some resolution in parting or reuniting. Not in Andrew Haigh’s quietly destructive drama. We watch Kate and Geoff Mercer in the week leading up to their 45th-anniversary party, a fateful week in which Kate learns new details about one of her husband’s old lovers. The woman predated their relationship entirely, yet the more that Kate discovers Geoff has kept secret, the greatest the chasm that opens between them. Haigh, who writes and directs, keeps our sympathies entirely with Kate; this is a mystery of sorts, a small-town noir, and Geoff may not be the man he seems.

Charlotte Rampling, playing Kate, has the most unusual face, fixed in a wry scowl that matches her inner coolness. It’s a face that magnifies the slightest look, and Rampling saves them up for when they’re really necessary. An eye roll or a cracked smile feel ten times their weight. Only once does she seem to let her guard down—alone by herself before the party, trying on a new necklace from her husband—and it’s her lack of expression that feels heartbreaking.

It’s the politest of melodramas, not nearly as emotional as Haigh’s superb Weekend. The real weight comes in imagining what happens next, after the abrupt coda. We journey deeper into the dark hell of a scarred marriage, Apocalypse Now-style, and we can’t leave the jungle.

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 7.51.49 AM

Though The Danish Girl is primarily about the first trans woman to have reassignment surgery, this movie works better as the story of a changing marriage. Living in the cinema’s idea of bohemian squalor, married artists Einar and Gerda Wegener must reexamine everything when Einar reveals he identifies as a woman named Lili.

The Danish Girl joins a growing list of movies adapted from memoirs of a celebrity spouse or lover. It’s not even the only one on Eddie Redmayne’s resume—look at The Theory of Everything and My Week with Marilyn (emphasis on the word “my”). These screenwriters have all employed an audience surrogate, someone less extraordinary, as our way “in.” Are they afraid we won’t be able to identify with a movie star or a mathematical genius? In the lead role, Redmayne succeeds at differentiating Einar from Lili, sometimes within a scene, using small changes in voice inflection and posture. But the transforming Lili never fully emerges from her chrysalis.

Maybe it’s because Redmayne is so reserved, so careful as Lili. And the movie surrounding him is very sincere—Tom Hooper photographs every scene beautifully, like an austere painting hanging in a gallery. Only Alicia Vikander delivers any passion as Einar’s loving, conflicted wife. Gerda is a lifeforce, open-minded and sensual in love and art. She teasingly dresses up Einar as a female model for her portraits, then convinces him to wear his disguise to a ball, not knowing she’s opened the door for Lili to finally come forward. As Lili transitions, Gerda stays by her side, not sure how or if to be her wife.

I would have liked to understand Lili better, but Hooper keeps his distance. We mostly see her from Gerda’s perspective. And for my taste, the impetus for her awakening felt too convenient. Einar cheekily takes on this new persona of Lili as a lark, so it seems to Gerda. Then more signs emerge, like Einar wearing a negligee under his suit. When he attends the ball in full Lili drag, it could be playacting until he meets a man who unsettles him, tries to kiss him. This cinematic shorthand for someone’s coming-out experience is very tidy, but it probably only happens like this at the movies.

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2 comments

  1. […] you make your own list, you might choose movies I had reservations about: The Danish Girl (review), about Lili Elbe, one of the first documented trans women to undergo sex reassignment surgery; […]

  2. […] you make your own list, you might choose movies I had reservations about: The Danish Girl (review), about Lili Elbe, one of the first documented trans women to undergo sex reassignment surgery; […]

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