The Oscar season is heating up and both of these films have garnered consideration, especially in the acting categories. Although it may be a little late to see Trumbo, The Danish Girl just recently expanded nation-wide, and although both films are very much in the line of well-acted, but flawed, period pieces, I would recommend both but for decent reasons.
In the case of Trumbo, the story starts just as Dalton Trumbo’s life took a huge change. As a long-time member of the communist party, his screenplays are ‘blacklisted’ and he is eventually put in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, where he ends up spending a year in jail for expressing his communist thinking. His return to screenwriting wasn’t easy, going by different aliases and lying about his identity to continue making money, but also to try to eventually get recognized for Oscar-caliber work, even with his name not quite on the material.
Certain scenes buzz with the energetic acting of Bryan Cranston as the title character, using his unique style of writing and outspoken political idealism as pieces to address the larger picture of free thinking in a rigid environment. We see him as both expressive, by arguing, chain-smoking, and constantly drinking scotch as he writes, but also as quite eccentric, such as bathing while typing, or meeting a director for the first time with a parrot on his shoulder. Cranston is quite good in this, but its obvious that the film-makers, including political veteran director Jay Roach, really were only interested in crafting one note characters. Diane Lane is the ‘upset wife,’ Helen Mirren is ‘the evil columnist’ (I cannot understand why she is getting awards consideration), Louis CK as the ‘funny but depressed sidekick,’ John Goodman as the ‘eccentric, greedy boss,’ Michael Stuhlbarg as ‘the betraying friend,’ and Dean O’Gorman as ‘the moviestar.’
These performances are all good in their own right, but they don’t reach the kind of potency that a film like this really needs. We have pieces of greatness, such as a wonderful small role for Elle Fanning as Trumbo’s hurting daughter, with Diane Lane and Louis CK having moments of breaking through their character’s rigid parameters. Cranston himself does it a little bit, but rarely is a line or action done by him unexpected. He does solid period piece acting here, but nothing extraordinary. So, it’s clear that the message and the snappy dialogue that these writers of the ‘Hollywood Ten’ throw at each other that would make it work. When Roach is at his best, such as being at the helm of Austin Powers in Goldmember or Meet the Parents, there’s a ton of funny comedic timing that would’ve been great to add to Trumbo. Some of it is definitely there, some of it is not. Overall, superior editing, decent performances, and some good dialogue make Trumbo worth seeing, especially for its message of free political thinking, but there’s not really an intensity that would make this movie really good. It settles somewhere in the range of being decent.
The Danish Girl does a similar thing, in taking a topic rich for the picking in the film industry, and instead withering it down to a manageable drama, rather than embracing its eccentricity. In a year dominated by the movement toward transgender acceptance, this film should feel like a showcase of the identity, and how it feels to get inside the mind of someone who struggles with the same. Although beautifully presented and acted, Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl is very safe, and instead becomes a period drama of occasional self-discovery, rather than a painful and emotional exploration of the feelings that accompany it.
We open up with Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) living a happy, intellectual couple’s lifestyle as painters in the 1920s. They can’t quite bear children, but seem happy in almost all instances. The problem is that Einar is holding a secret, that eventually becomes too burdensome to bear when Gerda asks him to dress up as ‘Lili’ for a painting she’s working on. Einar’s stability begins to fracture and begins dressing as Lili, and eventually even attending a party as her. Although Gerda is very open-minded and progressive-thinking, she still wants to have her husband around, and doesn’t quite understand what Einar is going through.
As Einar pursues a full-time identity as Lili, even meeting a male suitor (Ben Whishaw), Gerda’s paintings of her really take off, eventually landing her a gig in a great art gallery in Paris. The complicated emotions that Gerda is going through actually guides the movie, with Einar’s transition as more of a backdrop that propels this complicated relationship forward. Gerda seeks help from Einar’s old friend/love interest Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) and their relationship begins to bloom as well, with Gerda remaining faithful but confused, and Hans reciprocating affection to Gerda and support for his old friend in Einar, now Lili. The scenery, costumes, and capturing of the era are really, really beautiful. Well made film in almost all technical aspects, including David Cohen’s dreary cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s reserved, quiet score.
The tangled web that is weaved in these main character’s relationship with each other really is fascinating, but it’d be nice to get more emotion out of the situation. Believe it or not, the shy, quiet turn from Eddie Redmayne in this film leaves a little bit to be desired, and we desperately crave the conversations between Lili and Gerda that never happen, the sexual confusion that never happens, and the boundaries that are eventually set that are never discussed. We see a scene of Einar watching women and picking up their mannerisms, and plenty of scenes of him seeing doctors who have no idea about understanding his true identity, but the central romance/relationship that really is the focus of the majority of the scenes never really gets to the level of emotional turmoil that is clearly there, but hidden. It forces everything to feel a bit too crisp, almost as if a film student crafted the scenes, instead of a director who understands what hits the audience. I’m not saying that Hooper doesn’t, it’s just that him and Redmayne go a bit too much by-the-book, and never really hit home with how much of a really hard of a situation this would be for a couple. It’s really Alicia Vikander who is the powerful performance of this movie, conveying conflicting emotions with extreme clarity. She, like in Ex Machina earlier this year, really steals the show, and her beauty, in both her persona and her dominant physicality that she shows here, is never compromised by her conflicted emotional state. She’s a figure of constant strength, and I would vote for her for Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress, whichever the Academy decides to put her in. While the issues and delicacy of The Danish Girl tip-toeing around its real subject are frustrating, it’s Vikander who reminds us why we came to see it in the first place.