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Movie Review: 'The Danish Girl'

The Danish Girl is a powerful, poignant frontrunner in a home-hum Oscar race.

Review by Matt Cummings

In a time when transgender and gay rights have taken center stage, a film about an early 20th Century pioneer might seem like someone trying to jump onto the Caitlin Jenner Bandwagon. But The Danish Girl is much more than that, rising to become an instant Oscar frontrunner with its witty and tragic storytelling and awards-worthy lead performances.

The Danish painter Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) are a loving and successful couple whose open sexuality make them something of nuisance to early 20th Century conventions. But hidden deep in the recesses of Einar's mind is the alter ego Lili Elbe, who worries about the reaction society might have if they learn of her existence. When a chance event allows Einar to unleash his doppleganger, Gerda realizes that this is no passing fancy. Struggling to maintain her marriage and her sanity, Gerda enlists the help of a doctor who might be able to help by performing the world's first sex change operation on her husband. But as she soon realizes, the effect could undo her marriage and place Lili's life at risk.

Make no mistake, its subject matter still quickens the pulse; but like any legitimate Oscar contender, you can feel the weight of the storytelling. Here, its message is so powerful that it struggles to break free of the conventional means of telling it. Some will view that message as heresy, while others will walk out because of its in-your-face sexuality (there's serious nudity here). But dig deeper and you'll find a classic story of obsession and sacrifice, wrapped up in some of the best direction of the year. Tom Hooper executes his film with the skill of a master painter, commanding both the pretty landscapes of Europe with the sometimes stark world in which the Wegeners struggle to re-identify themselves. Hooper gets the humanity of what's at stake and lets Redmayne unleash his brilliance, unfazed by the possible consequences of a film that could have become overly dramatic or polished for mainstream effect. As Elnar's true colors begin to show, Redmayne beautifully transforms while allowing Elnar's obsession overtake him. It's such a compelling performance, but not even the best one.

That honor goes to Vikander, who makes a strong case for Oscar consideration. She plays both dutiful wife and victim with charm and loads of sexuality, becoming the brightest light in the room, even when the burden of adjusting to her new world becomes too much. This is as much Gerda's story as it is Lili's: to watch a young, vivacious soul like Gerda reduced to a tragic bystander is heartbreaking, and Vikander makes the most of it. Check out the scene where she plays borderline bisexual dominatrix with just enough sizzle to make a poser in an early scene sweat; it's the destruction of early 20th Century conventions as haven't seen in awhile.

And still, a film like The Danish Girl could be the most controversial of the year: the destruction of a marriage over a deep-seeded obsession, openly gay and sexually-available artists donning 19th Century attire and behaviors, and the idea of doctors labeling homosexual and transgender affiliations as mental illness. It's all there, along with some of the best dialogue of the year. Writer Lucinda Coxon crafts her script (based on the novel by David Ebershoff) knowing that the quality of the tale is more important than the reaction it will receive. She enriches her characters with both witty repartee and tragic regrets, granting even Amber Heard's few scenes with enough energy to almost complete her arc. That's the way a story should be told.

Two camps will inevitably rise from this story: some will cheer Lili's perseverance in the face of unimaginable consequences, while others will deride the destruction of a marriage over one man's self-centered obsession. Whatever side on which you land, one cannot debate the quality behind The Danish Girl and the questions it will no doubt raise.

Beautifully shot and spryly acted, The Danish Girl breaks many barriers on its way to becoming a frontrunner Oscar candidate. It's not big on re-watchability, but with such a poignant and powerful message in its sails, you have to think this story of obsession and sacrifice will be rewarded come February.

The Danish Girl is rated R for some sexuality and full nudity and has a runtime of 120 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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