The Danish Girl (2016)

★★★

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The Danish Girl PosterDirector: Tom Hooper

Release Date: December 25th, 2015 (US); January 1st, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; Romance

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander

Just like last year, Eddie Redmayne is spending his January up on cinema screens across the UK in a film about strong relationships and physical change. The Theory of Everything thrived upon its stars’ chemistry — Redmayne and Felicity Jones perfectly complemented each other as Mr. and Mrs. Hawking — and it is true that much of what is great about The Danish Girl revolves around its central pairing. Unfortunately, the film undercuts the dramatic potential of its subject matter (reality-based pioneering gender reassignment surgery). It shouldn’t be standard fare, but it is.

Redmayne plays Einar Wegener, an artist who dresses up as a woman at the behest of his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), and feels whole upon doing so. Einar evolves into Lili, first mentally and then physically, though Redmayne’s vulnerability remains steadily palpable throughout. The problem isn’t the actor; it won’t come as a surprise for you to learn he is good. Rather, it is the syrupy circus that surrounds him — those feather-light piano melodies that are enforced without any sort of careful restraint, and a screenplay absolutely swamped in fluffy dialogue (“My life, my wife”).

There is heartfelt delicacy, which is clearly what screenwriter Lucinda Coxon is going for, and then there is off-putting sentimentality, which is what she ends up with. Despite this, the film manages to celebrate two different kinds of femininity. Redmayne plays Lili with a soft evasiveness undoubtedly born out of her repressed identity. Gerda, on the other hand, appears battle-hardened, initially parading a boldness and then later genuine strength in the face of life-changing revelations. You have to believe in their relationship and its robustness in order to believe in the film on a very basic level, and you do because Redmayne and particularly Vikander sell their characters’ love authentically.

As Lili’s desire for personal correction ripens, the nuances of the two central roles are reversed and the narrative focus flips (at least it did for me). The Danish Girl starts to explore those hardships encountered by its other Danish girl, Gerda. Lili’s physical and mental anguish is plain to see and at times tough to consume, but we also must remember the major impact her situation is having on Gerda’s life too. Vikander takes us on an emotional roller coaster: pained, confused, sorrowful, empathetic. We watch just as she does, and we feel because she feels.

Like in Mr. Turner, art is used as a mode for exploration. That is until the film forgets about the art, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. Securing one’s true lifestyle is far more important after all, but we do spend a fair chunk of time in plush museums and at fancy gatherings and around interesting paintings for the piece to avoid that stuff thereafter (the movie’s funniest moment transpires from Gerda painting a particularly uptight gentleman). To be fair, this move away from art is consistent with Lili’s mindset — she decides not continue her career upon finding her real self — though a visit to the easel every now and again would have been welcome for story continuity: how are the duo making enough money for travel and healthcare if only one of them is working?

Tom Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen borrow from, of all people, Wes Anderson’s portfolio, at one point whimsically depicting a street of yellow bungalows side-on. It is a great shot, a single quirky page out of an otherwise standard picture book. Lili and Gerda’s house looks a bit like a charcoal painting, with shades of blue and grey adding little colour to the wooden floorboards and cracked walls — like the opening hour of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, of all films, it feels as though we are watching people interact on a carefully constructed set.

Todd Haynes’ Carol took on the social imbalance of 1950s New York and The Danish Girl similarly reflects a time when ‘to be different’ meant ‘to be insane’. We never really get into the nitty gritty of that though; the piece does seem to want to delve further into how Lili is affected by society’s petulance, opting to show an unprovoked attack and a couple of doctors’ misinformed diagnoses, though that is as far as it goes. Upon learning about a surgeon who might be willing to help Lili from one of Gerda’s clients (Amber Heard), any lingering backlash becomes non-existent.

Vikander aside, subtlety rarely features. Perhaps the subject matter requires as much, but an overly mushy screenplay lands the outing in cold water. The script also fails to carry the level of propulsion necessary to maintain two genuinely compelling hours. We enter more interesting territory when the spotlight is shone on Gerda and her struggles — a point at which Lili’s post-breakthrough self-obsession is admirably acknowledged (“Not everything is about you”) — but it isn’t really enough. Matthias Schoenaerts and Ben Wishaw freshen things up occasionally, though their roles do not carry any weight in the grand scheme of things.

I referred to a particularly amusing portrait painting scene earlier as a lone funny moment, but there is another unintentionally humorous façade: Lili (at this point still Einar) dresses up as a woman and attends an artist’s ball with Gerda. It’s like something out of a Superman comic: apart from a few close friends, nobody recognises the apparently popular landscape artist despite the astounding resemblance. Perhaps that is The Danish Girl in a nutshell: all too obvious and oddly difficult to comprehend.

The Danish Girl - Eddie Redmayne & Alicia Vikander

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Focus Features, Universal Pictures

Top 10 Performances of 2015 — Actor

A rubbish film can bear great performances, but a great film can’t really bear rubbish performances. The actor, in many ways, is the bread and butter of motion picture creation. It is his or her job to take the prescribed raw materials (a screenplay, a set, a prop) and recalibrate those errant parts through personal experience and analytical understanding into a final, visceral product that audiences can — hopefully — relate to or engage with.

2015 was another tiptop year on the acting front, across the board. Mainstream movies, under the radar indie flicks, big budget creations, genre pieces — you name it and there was at least one performance of note. Now that said year has ended and we are hammering down the motorway towards awards season, I think it is worth reflecting on some of those excellent portrayals.

These are my top ten male performances of 2015 (five leading and five supporting). If you so desire, you can check out my celebration of the work done by a few fantastic females here.

Leading Roles

5. Jake Gyllenhaal — Southpaw

A film and lead performance indicative (at least to an extent) of the first sentence in this feature, perennial powerhouse Jake Gyllenhaal elevates Antoine Fuqua’s riches-to-rags-to-riches boxing tale beyond convention. The actor has never really had a bad patch to bounce back from — unlike, say, Matthew McConaughey — but his work in recent years has been McConaissance-esque in quality. In Southpaw he plays a devastated boxer, matching a chiselled physique with a nuanced emotional exterior. It’s a shame his name has dropped out of the Oscar race, because this showing genuinely is a knockout.

Southpaw - Jake Gyllenhaal

4. Matt Damon — The Martian

It is always a pleasure to sit back and watch smart people do smart things, and Mark Watney fulfils that criteria. The Mars-stranded botanist was originally conceived on the pages of Andy Weir’s novel, and while books by nature offer readers a blank canvas to visualise content as they so please, it is tough to imagine anyone other than Matt Damon as Watney. He purveys a resilience that endears, a wit that encourages laughter, and an occasional serious streak that demands wholesale sympathy. Good thing too, given Damon spends the majority of the two and a half hours on-screen by himself.

The Martian - Matt Damon

3. Michael Fassbender — Steve Jobs

Giving a personal face to an Aaron Sorkin screenplay seems difficult enough, but turning the notoriously hard-headed Steve Jobs into someone we can somewhat relate to is something else entirely. Michael Fassbender does just that as a specific version of the Apple genius — the showman — taking us on a journey through three product launches and three personality evolutions. There is a magnetism to the way he interacts with those around him as well as an initial, purposeful iciness that naturally melts into generous acceptance. Between this and his headline role in Macbeth, Fassbender’s had a strong year.

Steve Jobs - Michael Fassbender

2. Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

Transformative performances are in vogue in the world of Eddie Redmayne and it’s clear to see why: he is very good at them. Redmayne is back among the awards chatter having opened 2016 as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, but his early 2015 portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything is the superior of the two. The actor is exposed for all to see as the physicist, with very little to fall back on. His co-star Felicity Jones brings beautiful subtlety to Jane Hawking, the inverse of Redmayne’s painstakingly physical delivery. He won the Best Actor Oscar early in the year, and justifiably so.

The Theory of Everything - Eddie Redmayne

1. Oscar Isaac — A Most Violent Year

While Redmayne and co. celebrated the industry recognition afforded to them via golden statuette, Oscar Isaac found himself devoid of even an invite to acting table. Criminally overlooked as struggling businessman Abel Morales, in A Most Violent Year Isaac — and I mean this with absolute sincerity — nears an Al-Pacino-in-The-Godfather level of performance. J.C. Chandor’s script is cool and careful, affording Isaac a platform to excel from. Abel’s aura is built upon composure and a need to maintain moral correctness, but shots are occasionally fired and with real menace. Isaac ensures we never dislike him though, which is saying something given the murky presence of vehicle hijackings and loan sharks. It’s not a showy performance, simply an utterly engrossing one indicative of a genuine movie star.

A Most Violent Year - Oscar Isaac

Special Mention: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo — Foxcatcher

Major props ought to go to the trio at the forefront of Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, all three as worthy of a top five spot as any. Ruffalo reverberates with awkward allure, playing someone who is keenly aware that his younger sibling could be as talented a wrestler as he. As said sibling, Tatum infuses the nominal jock archetype with a sense of unyielding desperation and highly sought after humanity. And Carell swaps bumbling comedy for haunting creep, dressed in a prosthetic getup that disguises his usual cheeriness and instead promotes true horror.

Foxcatcher - Carell & Ruffalo

Supporting Roles

5. Oscar Isaac — Ex Machina

It has been a terrific year for Isaac — he’s also great in an underserved Star Wars: The Force Awakens role — one that got underway in Alex Garland’s mind-prodding Ex Machina. Like Foxcatcher, this is another outing bolstered by three capable performances (and, indeed, a whole lot more). Isaac juggles a host of familiar attributes, from a macho physicality to a technological savvy to a weariness brought on by wealth, and it is fitting therefore that we can never quite pinpoint his mindset at any given moment. The untamed beard helps too.

Ex Machina - Oscar Isaac

4. Emory Cohen — Brooklyn

You’ll do well to find a more charming male protagonist this year than Tony Fiorello. He is the ideal boyfriend, nurturing but not overly invasive, and never a sappy thanks to Emory Cohen. Aided by Nick Hornby’s wonderful screenplay, Cohen brings a commendable amiability (particularly commendable when you consider who he acts opposite — the interminably delightful Saoirse Ronan) and a retro flair akin to that of James Dean: the wavy hairdo, the cheeky grin, the enigmatic charisma. It’s all there.

Brooklyn - Emory Cohen & Saoirse Ronan

3. J.K. Simmons — Whiplash

There is very little else that can be said about J.K. Simmons’ Oscar-winning turn as a maniacal music teacher in Whiplash, but I’ll say some more anyway. Having carved out a career playing bit part supporting roles, it feels right the most critically acclaimed turn of the actor’s career is his meatiest supporting stance to date. As Terence Fletcher, Simmons strikes fear into not only the mind of Miles Teller but of viewers also, unleashing a poised (and then not-so-poised) ferocity conceived in a pair of all-knowing eyes. No rushing or dragging here.

Whiplash - J.K. Simmons

2. Benicio del Toro — Sicario

Mystery is the key to Benicio del Toro’s negotiation-avoiding brute. In my review of Sicario, I lauded his performance as follows: “Del Toro saunters on-screen parading a mystique that suggests he ain’t to be messed with. He folds his jacket even though it is already creased, a move that mirrors his make-up: externally unruffled but internally blazing. The actor has that grizzled veteran demeanour, his hitman reminiscent of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West.” That is to say, he’s quite good.

Sicario - Benicio del Toro

1. Mark Rylance — Bridge of Spies

Like the aforementioned J.K. Simmons, Mark Rylance has never really be one to court the cinematic limelight. He has primarily plied his trade in theatre, but there is nothing theatrical about his portrayal of potential Soviet spy Rudolph Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Precision is key; you can’t keep your eyes off Rylance because every inclination, every stutter, every action appears to have some sort of meaning. The chemistry he shares with Tom Hanks — another would-be worthy addition to any celebratory list — breeds authenticity across a companionship that might otherwise have felt cold. Full Marks.

Bridge of Spies - Mark Rylance

Images credit: Collider, Nerdist

Images copyright (©): A24Focus Features, Fox Searchlight Pictures, LionsgateSony Pictures Classics, TSG EntertainmentUniversal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion PicturesThe Weinstein Company20th Century Fox

Oscars 2015 — Final Predictions

Oscars 2015

Don’t we all just love the Oscars? It’s an evening of maniacal celebration, of gratuitous back-patting, of cringe-worthy speech-making and of hosts trying to grasp the latest social trend – I’m looking at you, selfie Ellen. The folks over in Hollywood might “really like” Sally Field, but they’re not quite as fond of Selma or Nightcrawler, and goodness knows how fond they are of American Sniper (hopefully not as much as many fear).

All joking aside, Academy Awards night is a big one for the film industry. The movies nominated are, for the most part, pretty damn good too and should be heralded on a grand stage. Tonight’s ceremony is looking fairly clear-cut in most categories, but there are still a few ambiguities to be sorted.

Better get on with some predictions then. Click on the appropriate film titles for reviews.

Best Picture

American Sniper

Birdman

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Selma

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

– Will win: Boyhood

– Should win: Boyhood

– Should’ve been nominated: Interstellar

Oscars 2015 - Boyhood

Best Director

Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman)

Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher)

Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)

Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

– Will win: Alejandro G. Iñárritu

– Should win: Richard Linklater

– Should’ve been nominated: Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin)

Oscars 2015 - Inarritu

Best Actor

Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)

Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)

Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

Michael Keaton (Birdman)

Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)

– Will win: Michael Keaton

– Should win: Eddie Redmayne

– Should’ve been nominated: David Oyelowo (Selma), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)

Oscars 2015 - Keaton

Best Actress

Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)

Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)

Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

Rosumand Pike (Gone Girl)

– Will win: Julianne Moore

– Should win: Rosamund Pike

– Should’ve been nominated: Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow)

Oscars 2015 - Moore

Best Supporting Actor

Edward Norton (Birdman)

Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)

J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)

Robert Duvall (The Judge)

– Will win: J.K. Simmons

– Should win: J.K. Simmons

– Should’ve been nominated: Channing Tatum (Foxcatcher), Andy Serkis (DotPotA)

Oscars 2015 - Simmons

Best Supporting Actress

Emma Stone (Birdman)

Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)

Laura Dern (Wild)

Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)

Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

– Will win: Patricia Arquette

– Should win: Patricia Arquette

– Should’ve been nominated: Carrie Coon (Gone Girl)

Oscars 2015 - Arquette

Best Adapted Screenplay

American Sniper

The Imitation Game

Inherent Vice

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

– Will win: The Imitation Game

– Should win: Whiplash

– Should’ve been nominated: Gone Girl

Oscars 2015 - TIG

Best Original Screenplay

Birdman

Boyhood

Foxcatcher

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Nightcrawler

– Will win: Birdman

– Should win: Boyhood

– Should’ve been nominated: Guardians of the Galaxy

Oscars 2015 - Birdman

Final Thoughts

It looks as though the only real tussle – and it’s a big one – will be between Boyhood and Birdman for Best Picture. They’ll probably split the top award and Best Director between them, though Boyhood and Linklater deserve both.

Michael Keaton might yet nab Best Actor from Eddie Redmayne and despite the bookies favouring the Brit after his BAFTA triumph, I fancy the American to win in the US (cynical me).

As far as the other three acting categories go, Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette are all shoe-ins. The latter two fully deserve to win. Still Alice still hasn’t hit cinemas over here in the UK therefore I have yet to see Moore’s performance, but I just can’t look past Rosamund Pike’s stunning turn in Gone Girl. Pike should win. She won’t.

The biggest snubs of the year are probably Interstellar and Nightcrawler. David Oyelowo absolutely should be contention for Best Actor (he should probably win it, in truth) but at least Selma has top table nomination. With ten possible slots in the Best Picture category, the dismissal of Interstellar and Nightcrawler is unjustified.

Carrie Coon should feel aggrieved to be missing out on a Best Supporting Actress nomination, as should Channing Tatum in the Best Supporting Actor – or even Best Actor – category. It has been a strong year for the actors to be fair. And a word too for Blue Ruin, one of 2014’s less well-known masterstrokes.

If you’re watching, enjoy the show!

Oscars 2015 Best Picture

Images credit: ColliderHollywood Reporter, Indiewire

The Theory of Everything (2015)

★★★★

The Theory of Everything PosterDirector: James Marsh

Release Date: November 26th, 2014 (US); January 1st, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; Romance

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones

In The Theory of Everything Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) spends a lifetime trying to figure out the inception of our very existence. For all intents and purposes he succeeds in doing so. Or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe it doesn’t matter. This really depends on your own beliefs. James Marsh’s film ventures down a similar path to that of its central figure as it attempts to fulfil various thematic nodes: love story, tale of human adversity, science exhibition and so on. As these strands weave together to form Stephen’s story they don’t always feel complete. Or maybe they do. Maybe it doesn’t matter. This really depends on your own expectations.

Providing those expectations aren’t bound up by a need to see something totally flawless, The Theory of Everything should cover all bases sufficiently. Most of us are aware of Stephen Hawking; certainly of his illness if not the physicist’s scientific endeavours. The film takes us through Stephen’s adult life, from his first inclinations that something is wrong with his body to the writing of his best-selling book, A Brief History of Time.

But it becomes clear as the picture develops that Marsh’s vision isn’t necessarily weighed down by either disability or science, and instead the director wants to tell the story of a relationship. As such, The Theory of Everything becomes a co-biopic, its emphasis as much on the obvious struggles of Stephen as on the less obvious trials of his long time wife Jane (Felicity Jones). It’s because of this, and because the filmmaker only has two hours to capture a life of enormity, that key elements fall by the wayside. Shortly after Stephen is diagnosed with motor neuron disease — a scene shot so intimately by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme that the devastation is doubled — we learn that he only has two years left to live. Though, in a move that indicates the director’s desire to fit more stuff in, the film nonchalantly evades the two year mark.

It is an unenviable problem to have, one that leaves Stephen’s relationship with Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) a little underfed, but the (admittedly necessarily) overstretched journey does afford us more than just an insight into the Hawking family. The early interactions between Stephen and Jane are reminiscent of those shared by Celine and Jesse in Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy; he is quite awkward and she timid, but before long they are strolling around picturesque locales discussing the source of humankind. Both are defined by entirely separate ideologies too, Jane being a believer God and an arts student, Stephen an advocate for method and science. “I have a slight problem with the celestial dictatorship premise,” he says and from then we’re totally drawn into the pair’s capricious relationship.

In a manner of speaking, The Theory of Everything draws its pulpy interior from a clash of science and faith. Yet the film never exploits this duel beyond repair and instead uses it as an underlying catalyst for its central love story. Stephen, despite his adoration for the subject, is increasingly pillaged by science, his health deteriorating by the frame. He even defies the presence of a doctor, much to the chagrin of his wife. On the other hand Jane finds herself silently enraptured by the life she might’ve had as she and her husband spend more and more time with Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox), a choir conductor whom Jane meets at church. The influence of the couple’s branching schools of thought is slight but entirely profound, a notion particularly felt when Stephen momentarily submits his incessant ignorance of God and then begins to backtrack. “Are you actually going to allow me to have this moment?” Jane asks.

Much of the praise the film have received thus far has been directed towards the performances of both Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, and for good reason. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that in 2015 these actors will deliver excellence on screen, but the level the pair operate at here is truly magnificent. Redmayne does all the hard graft as Stephen, completely embodying the physicist’s eventual symbolic manifestation. It’s a role without a safety net and Redmayne should be commended for his artistic bravery as well as his tremendous portrayal. Jones is every bit as good, her subtlety and finesse perfectly complementing the physicality in Redmayne’s enactment. She’s more than simply a supplement though, Jones accentuating the strength of Jane through her pained-yet-defiant facial range. Supporting work from the likes of Charlie Cox and David Thewlis is also strong, though it is Redmayne and Jones who stand out significantly.

The Theory of Everything is at its best when Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are united, projecting performances that are totally different but equally effective and affecting. The film is delightfully funny too, and not at all bogged down by disconsolation. And hey, if it’s good enough for Stephen Hawking, it’s good enough for me.

The Theory of Everything - Redmayne and Jones

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Focus Features, Universal Pictures