“The Danish Girl”—There are Two

Danish Girl

Based on David Ebershoff’s novel, “The Danish Girl” is a compelling portrait of   transgender life in the early twentieth century. A dramatization of the diaries of Einar Wegener, one of the first trans women to undergo sex reassignment surgery, we see the transgender world: first, as Einar and then later, as Lili.

“The Danish Girl” opens with Einar, a landscape artist (played by Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything”), who is married to Gerda (Alicia Verkander, “Ex Machina”), a painter of portraits. Both artists are supportive and sometimes resistant to each other’s career aspirations. In the beginning it is Einar who has more success in Copenhagen, and then later it is his wife, who becomes famous painting Lili. But the married couple has a passionate, bohemian lifestyle that suits both of them.

What begins one evening as a game—Einar dressing up in one of his wife’s gowns as cousin “Lili” for an artists’ ball—turns into the catalyst for his sexual transformation and discovery of who he truly is. Lili falls in love with Henrik (Ben Whishaw) and Gerda learns to fall in love again– with Lili. Both Danish girls care deeply for each other, and Gerda recognizes and appreciates Lili for who she is, in a wrenching and compassionate rebirth of love. In many ways it is Gerda’s ordeal, which is the heart and emotional pulse of “The Danish Girl”. She is the other Danish girl left to love first her husband as Einar Wegener, then as her best friend, Lili Elbe. Vikander is mesmerizing as Gerda (this year’s Academy Award winner for best actress,) struggling with the hurt, anguish, and confusion all registered simultaneously on her face as she stands by the love of her life.

This film tackles the life of a transgender individual with extraordinary dignity, respect, and complexity. The bravery to undergo harrowing experimental brain and sexual reassignment surgery, face brutal homophobic violence, and channel the confidence to accept who you are in spite of these affronts, will leave few viewers unmoved.   How many of us would have the grace of Gerda in adapting our relationship in similar circumstances? In watching “The Danish Girl”, you may be surprised to learn more about gender identity and crisis than you expected.

“The Theory of Everything”—A Brief History of Love

Theory of Everything

This is a lyrical and magnificent film, adapted from a literary source (a memoir by Jane Hawking). Rich in character and dialogue, “The Theory of Everything” is primarily a romance wrapped around a chronicle of a brilliant and beautiful mind trapped in a malfunctioning body. This film is a narrative of heartbreak, marital and emotional distance, with jagged edges and torn souls portrayed with great subtlety and craft.

Focusing on the courtship and marriage of Jane (the riveting Felicity Jones) and Stephen Hawking (a tour-de-force performance by Eddie Redmayne from “My Week with Marilyn” and “Pillars of the Earth”), we see the two principals portray great humor, courage, and most of all, love for each other. “The Theory of Everything” covers a twenty-five year period from Stephen Hawking’s days as a PhD student at Cambridge (1965), to his best-selling treatise, A Brief History of Time (1988) and recognition as a Companion of Honour by the Queen (1989).

Jane is also a PhD student who is an aspiring scholar in French and Spanish, but sacrifices her own academic career in order to nurture a tender, defiant, and at times imperiled marriage. The decline of Stephen Hawking’s health seems to parallel the decline in the marriage between Stephen and Jane.

Using fireworks and cinematographic images of the star-filled sky to suggest Hawking’s brilliant astrophysics theories , the viewer is given a glimpse of his theoretical physics, a quest for a single elegant mathematical theorem to express the system of the universe in all its glory, from inception to black holes and the beginning of time. A very light touch is given to his theories on cosmology.

The poignancy and painful irony of observing a consummate mathematics genius, who theorizes about the infinity of space and time, crammed into a very confining capsule, wheelchair-bound, is portrayed without pity. As Hawking’s illness progresses and the muscles in his neck fail to hold his head, we see Redmayne appear to do the impossible: a physical performance imitating the paralysis and speechlessness of Hawking, cocking his head to the side, like a fragile bird whose neck is broken. As flaccid as a puppet, the actor nonetheless conveys humor, a confident understanding, and an unflinching empathy in a glance or a subtle postural change. There is an emotional and powerful transparency in Redmayne’s eyes that is at once complex and revealing. With only synthesized computer speech to communicate as his speech slowly curdles into incomprehensibility, Redmayne makes the inexpressible understandable.

Felicity Jones’ role as Jane Hawking is just as striking, conveying the vibrancy and heart-wrenching devotion for a man she admires, loves, and wants to make happy. Her understanding and compassion  make “The Theory of Everything” tremendously moving and inspirational, as well as being a testament to strength of character and human values.  This film should win Oscars!