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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Danish Girl and Spotlight

This weekend I saw two fine films at the old-fashioned movie house in Athens, Ohio. The first, The Danish Girl, starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, imaginatively retells the story of Einar and Gerda Wegener, Copenhagen painters from the 1920s. Einar adopts the persona of a woman he calls Lili Elbe and gradually comes to realize that he is, in fact, a woman trapped inside a man's body. He becomes one of the first transgendered people after undergoing sex-change surgery in the early 1930s.

Gerda sketching.

Though based on a real story, the movie displays as a fantasia. Every scene is gorgeous, often filmed with the faint haze of an Impressionist painting or backlit by a golden glow. Copenhagen, with its fishing boats and tiled roofs, is unutteraby lovely, as is marbled and chanderliered Paris. The people in the movie look beautiful and appear in opulent clothes as they float through parties and art openings dressed in velvets, sequins and silk scarves with beautiful prints. Breathtaking art nouveau designs fill the rooms, along with exquisite white tulle ballet gowns and half finished canvases. Downton Abbey looks pedestrian in contrast (of of course has a "downstairs" of servants and at least superficial bit of toil).

 If the filming is lush, the film's characters are also drawn unabashedly bigger-than-life, reminding me of Peter Jackson's daring in depicting heroism in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a love story, The Danish Girl reminded me too of lyrical 1940s Hollywood dramas.

Stills don't entirely capture the cumulative effect of the lush, beautiful filming.  Gerda remains bigger-than-life in her  loyalty to her transgendered husband. 

Einar poses for Gerda, perhaps clutching the ballet gown with too much longing.

Like Jackson's trilogy--and Downton Abbey for that matter--this movie works, because its animating vision is clear, consistent and sustained throughout the film, and the acting quite good. I found myself caring about the bigger-than-life characters and despite myself, was moved, though it occurred to me at times that while Einar might have shed his male identity, he never, ever shed his overwhelming sense of male entitlement. Nevertheless, I craved a costume drama and this entirely satisfied that urge. I appreciated the movie for being so unabashedly the gorgeous fantasia it was. I found it not entirely escapist either, as it raised hard and intelligent questions about identity and gender, as well as the condundrums posed by art, identity and pain: in the movie, Gerda achieves depth as artist only when she begins painting Lili, whose emergence is the catalyst for the destruction of her domestic idyll, while as a woman, the talented painter Einar/Lili abandons his art and becomes a shop girl in a department store, apparently happily.

The real Lili beside the filmed version, played by Eddie Redmayne.

After The Danish Girl, we watched Spotlight, a film aiming to realistically recreate how the Boston Globe broke the story of Roman Catholic Church's systemic 40-year cover-up of  priests who sexually abused minors. Although we know how it all turned out, the blow-by-blow depiction of the story's unfolding was riveting. The movie also compellingly illustrated the damage the cover-up did, as priests the church knew to be pedophiles were allowed to continue to victimize the innocent. I would say the movie is only somewhat realistic, however, because as a former reporter I realized that the film, to combat tedium, made the reporters' tasks (drudgery) seem much easier than they would have been.

The Spotlight team--the investigative reporting unit of the Globe--meet to discuss the unfolding sex abuse story. It could be jarring to see faces familiar from tv, such as  John Slattery from Mad Men and Rachel McAdams from True Detective. 

The film pointedly questions the news media, making it clear that the Globe had the story in its hands--that is to say, pluckable--for at least decade and never bothered to put the pieces together. It was all there, hidden in plain sight, but, the film strongly implies, nobody wanted to see it. Given the extent to which corporate profit taking since 2001-02 (the time frame of the movie) has decimated, if not destroyed, many newsrooms, one can only long for the kind of funding and patience that in the end made breaking this story possible--and wonder what rampant corruption might be going on undetected today.

The story hiding in plain sight also reminded me of my Bonhoeffer research, which likewise uncovered a story hiding in plain sight. I imagine this happens more often than we think: I see it in Jane Austen studies too. As Nietzsche pointed out, we often see only what we have already decided is there; we fit our facts to our frame, not our frame to our facts.

Both these movies impressed me for their willingness to develop characters, raise difficult questions and work from an ethical framework.


  1. I applaud you for going and taking such a generous view of these most recent products of the film-producing community who are now trying for products TV and Netflix and other outlets on the Net can't reproduce. To me the surface lushness of these films and their over-the-top melodrama makes a basis that destroys deeper feeling. The catering first to the bottom line: profit from a larger community is part of this. I also thought about Eddie Redmayne and worried that he's perceived as a non-aggressive male and thus cannot be put in a "normal" male role. This is bad news for men who are heterosexual too. I've been watching Danger UXB with Anthony Andrews: after this, Brideshead and Ivanhoe he was finished. Men are not allowed to be like that. Could it be today he'd be hijacked into this agenda which probably is too high-minded to pull in too much voyeurism. For Spotlight I worried about the attention to reporters: yes they are being murdered and imprisoned in increasing numbers, but this was supposed a story about the Catholic Church in Ireland. Why all this concern about male sexuality? Girls were hideously destroyed, enslaved in effect (working in laundries, unpaid, dying of malnutrition and despair) who became pregnant outside marriage, most of the infants dying young - these are the more horrifying aspects of Catholic control. Are reporters helped by this movie? Do people see news-shows as not-news but propaganda after seeing this? on whose part? These are the better films found in the DC area in movie-houses.

  2. Hi Ellen. I too worry about Eddie Redmayne. But Spotlight is a different film from the one you are thinking of: Spotlight is about the Boston Globe breaking the priest sex abuse coverup in this country. Ireland doesn't enter into it. The Danish Girl is a fantasia--I think it might have the movie I needed to see on that day, after the deep injuries of a death, and yes, to be what it is it sacrifices being something that might have been better.

  3. I find it strange that Lili would end as a shop girl and happy at that! But then I find the kind of femininity Caitlin Jenner embraces to be troubling, not exactly feminist is it? How much attention does Gerda get as an artist? I'm not sure I want to see this film.

  4. Elaine,
    Yes, "Lili" does have a sexist and limited view of what it means to be a woman--and that is troubling. Clothing, makeup, coy makeup, shop girl career--and she wants a baby. Apparently, the doctors tried to give the real Lili a uterus. The movie has limitations: Gerda couldn't be more angelic. But it is what I needed to see at the time.

  5. Perhaps it's a bizarre way of reinstating traditional gender roles. I saw the preview and that was enough for me. There aren't many films I really want to see. Maybe star wars as I've never seen any of them!

  6. Diane, excellent review of both films, and thanks for alerting me to the male privilege aspect of The Danish Girl, which I will definitely see sometime soon.