Tom Hooper directs Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl, a story based on the pioneering life of Danish artist Einar Wegner who undergoes the first documented gender reassignment surgery to be transformed as Lili Elbe.
Hooper is known for his sensitive direction of unusual subject matter and for extracting awards-worthy performances from his leads. With King’s Speech he got Colin Firth the lead actor gold as the stammering stuttering King George VI as he tries to overcome his childhood disabilities and lead Britain to war against Nazi Germany. With Les Miserables he directed Anne Hathaway to a supporting actor nod as she cried singed her way to Fantine’s epic I dreamed a dream. And here he directs last year’s winner Eddie Redmayne as he grapples with what it is to be a transgendered person in the 1920s and 1930s. But the real star is Alicia Vikander who as Einar’s wife and fellow artist Gerda Wegner brings to life the Lili that Einar has since childhood tried to keep under wraps.
The first half of the movie where Einar and Gerda’s relationship is explored as husband and wife and his penchant for cross dressing and effeminate behaviour is slowly becoming more and more prominent seems a bit forced. Eddie Redmayne’s transformation from Einar to Lili seems conflict free and almost too sudden. But there is a beautiful moment when while spending time with Ben Wishaw’s Henrik Lili realises that Henrik is a homosexual who thinks he is spending time with Einar in a get up Lili leaves and a distinction is made between what it is to be a homosexual and what it is like to be a transgendered.
It is the second half where the things get a little more fluid and things seem to flow with a natural ease. Through Lili Gerda loses her husband but finds the fame she has been chasing as an artist. Her portraits of Lili sell and she wins new commissions and is the toast of Paris art-scene. There is a beautiful struggle as she tries to hold on to Einar while it is Lili that is more and more on display. As Einar tries doctors after doctors who all treat him for various mental disorders you see the struggle is real for a transgender person in the 1930s. Finally through their friend Ulla played by a ravishing Amber Heard they come across a German doctor Warnekros who performs the pioneering operation. This is where Eddie Redmayne transforms and delivers stunning performance as Lili works at a shop and tries to learn the mannerisms that make up a flirtatious girl.
The music by Alexandre Desplat is subtle as ever and underscores the silent struggles that both Einar/Lili and Gerda go through while Danny Cohen does spectacular work behind the camera to capture the stunning landscapes that Einar is known for painting and also the more personal portrait shots that are Gerda’s speciality. The scenes of the Fjords, the symmetrical shots of the Danish buildings the scenes at the wharf are all beautifully framed. The final scene of the scarf flying off at the cliff is made even more poignant because of the beautiful shot.
While not perfect in execution, primarily due to a choppy first half the lead pair turn in stunning performances and the delicate and sensitive handling of the transgender story is what lifts this from being a pure Oscar bait to being a believable and emphatic story. Do not miss The Danish Girl.
How can a documentary be so engaging that you watch it over and over and over. That’s right a documentary that I have seen not just once or twice but three times. The Art of Steal by Don Argott plays like a debriefing of a major heist. Interspersed with interviews from people who knew Dr. Albert Barnes personally or were associated with the “friends of the Barnes foundation” and also newspaper clippings and interviews with people who are essentially the bad-guys in this movie.
If it is a heist movie then there has to be a priceless treasure at the heart of it. And here we are talking of a private collection of post-impressionist and modern art which is conservatively estimated at 25-35 billion and might even touch a 100 billion mark if art like that was ever to hit the market. It consists the who’s who of the greatest artists including Van Gogh, Degas, Matisse, Renoirs, Cezanne’s, Picassos, Monet’s and Manets. Art that is not just staggering in terms of quantity but also in terms of the quality in that it includes some of the best example of the artist’s work, for instance it includes Cezanne’s Card players featuring 5 subjects as opposed to the Cezanne’s Card Player which is currently the most expensive painting at 259-300 million featuring 2 subjects.
The documentary does not try to strike a balance in terms of portraying both sides of the story. It is an out and out vilification of the people who disregarded Dr. Barnes wishes and moved the collection out of its original house. But I don’t have a problem with that. Imagine if you will that you are a very rich and successful chemist who has developed an antiseptic drug Argyrol to treat gonorrhea and made a fortune from selling your company in your 30s. you then go on to study art and actively collect artists who are not that famous yet and also picking up famous post-impressionist masterpieces before those names became being taken in the same breath as Da Vinci and other masters. Imagine that you lovingly put your art on display not in the setting of a museum but more like how it would in a home, putting pictures together because of their visual style rather than just the artist’s name. Imagine that you explicitly put it in your will that the art is to be forever displayed in the same way to students who want to learn from the masters. Imagine that after you died greedy rich fat-cats want to lay their dirty hands on your priceless treasure to rip it off the walls you so lovingly adorned to be displayed in the stark soulless confines of museums which will also play hosts to the same rich fat-cats’ dinner galas. I’d be pretty darn pissed would you? So what if I was a nutcase and didn’t like the society folks of Philadelphia? It is still my art and my wish and my will which has been violated. There can simply be no justification. The argument that had it not been done the public would have been deprived of the art is ridiculous and blasted to smithereens by the fact that Dr Barnes always allowed a limited number of visitors to come in to view the display and spend as much time as they wished.
Some of the interviewees who speak so passionately about the power of the art and eye with which Barnes put the collection together you are moved yourself. This is a fascinating documentary which covers nearly all the aspects of the decades long legal struggle of trying to return the Barnes collection to its original home in Lower Merion Pennsylvania.
If you’ve never seen any documentary then might I recommend you start with this one? While some documentary subject matters are very hard to palate this plays out more like a thriller. This is an exciting and fascinating look at an art theft which is perhaps second only to what Hitler perpetrated at the beginning of the Second World War.
As a side note, on my recent visit to USA , I was thrilled to bits to be visiting Philadelphia and wanted to watch the Barnes collection at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, as much as I hated the people who put the collection there I wanted to see in person the art that was at the center of the entire debate, but turns out the only wish of Dr. Barnes that they have adhered to is to limit the number of visitors and I was not allowed inside despite several requests and pleas that I had a flight to catch back to India the next day.