Movie reviews: The Danish Girl, Joy

Opening in Copenhagen in 1926, The Danish Girl (15A) centres on recently married artists Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander). 

Movie reviews: The Danish Girl, Joy

Einar, who specialises in landscapes, is a more celebrated artist than his wife, who prefers portraiture; but when Gerda asks Einar to sit for her one day, to take the place of a female model who has failed to turn up, a subtle shift in their relationship occurs.

Tom Hooper’s film, adapted by Lucinda Coxon from David Ebershoff’s novel, suggests that this is the moment when Einar’s alter-ego Lili Elbe is born, and Einar’s awareness of the woman who inhabits his male body is first awakened.

What follows is an elegant character study as Lili gradually evolves, and Einar embarks on a journey into uncharted territory as a transgender pioneer (the story is based on historical events). Redmayne won an Oscar last year for his role as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2014), but the part of Einar/Lili brings with it a different kind of challenge in terms of physical adaptation, and Redmayne’s performance isn’t quite as persuasive this time.

The shy, crooked smile that gives Einar an unusually coquettish appearance in the early stages remains in place throughout, and while the conceit is — presumably — that the personality inside the physical body remains the same throughout Einar/Lili’s journey, it has the unfortunate effect of suggesting that Redmayne has failed to adapt to the character’s transformation into a woman.

That said, it’s a courageous and compelling performance, given a poignant quality as Redmayne battles to sublimate his angular, gawky frame to Lili’s ideal of femininity.

Alicia Vikander has a more passive but equally vital role as Einar’s wife, the conflicted portrait painter who applies the female gaze to her own husband and sets in train her most enduring artistic achievement by ‘creating’ Lili.

For a film so concerned with physicality, however, this is a story deeply rooted in emotion, as Gerda and Einar/Lili struggle to cope with the pressures on their marriage and the tyranny of conforming to societal norms, while simultaneously attempting to nurture the complex personalities fighting for supremacy inside Einar/Lili as the pair set out to ‘correct a mistake in nature’.

Hooper directs with a kind of restrained elegance, never flinching from the horrifying aspects of the tale (Einar/Lili’s initial treatment is primitive, to put it politely) but refusing to engage in either sentimentality or histrionics. The result is an engaging, heartbreaking but ultimately life-affirming story of immense courage, and a timely challenge to outmoded perceptions of what constitutes masculinity and femininity.

David O Russell’s Joy (12A) is also based on a true story, that of American entrepreneur Joy Mangano.

When we first meet her, Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is the put-upon matriarch of a dysfunctional family, divorced from Tony (Édgar Ramírez) who still lives in her basement, and caring for her bedbound mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), her two kids, and her irascible father Rudy (Robert De Niro).

An inventor since she was a child, Joy hits upon the idea of a Miracle Mop whilst cleaning up yet again after the mess her family leaves behind, and sets out to achieve her dream of financial independence.

David O Russell (The Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) is a master of the ensemble movie, and Joy starts out in promising fashion, its whimsical tone and offbeat humour capturing the chaos of Joy’s life as she provides the quiet, competent heart of a family that would likely disintegrate without her calming effect (her mother is a soap opera addict, and the contrast between the TV’s fictions and Joy’s reality is a comic highlight).

As the story progresses, however, and Joy meets Neil (Bradley Cooper), the head of the QVC TV station, the storyline simplifies into the age-old pursuit of the American dream (ie, money equals happiness), and much of the quirkiness goes out of the tale.

Lawrence is sharply observant in the earlier stages, picking up on the tiny details that define the craziness of Joy’s life, but in the latter stages she morphs into a hard-nosed, single-minded businesswoman — impressive in reality, certainly, but not particularly interesting in terms of dramatic conflict on the big screen.

Russell gives the proceedings a slick and stylish sheen, and provides an excellent supporting cast (including Isabella Rossellini and Diane Ladd, with Elisabeth Röhm stealing every scene she’s in as Joy’s ambitious half-sister Peggy), but the abiding impression, as the story fails to connect on an emotional level, is — ironically, given the reasons why Joy Mangano succeeded in reality — a triumph of style over substance.

The Danish Girl ****

Joy ***

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