Dilettante's Diary

Jan 27/16

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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How Fiction Works
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Head to Head
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: The Danish Girl (Movie); Les Pcheurs de Perles (Opera); Brooklyn (Movie)

The Danish Girl (Movie) screenplay by Lucinda Coxon; based on the novel by David Ebershoff; starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Amber Heard, Adrian Schiller, Ben Whishaw

There’s been so much talk about this movie and its connection to one of the big social issues of our day, that you can hardly sit down to watch it without knowing beforehand what it’s about: a married man who decides that he is actually a woman. This is, in fact, the story of Einar Wegener, a Danish man who transitioned to a female identity in the 1920s.

The filmmakers can’t be blamed for the fact that we arrive at the theatre being so well aware of where the movie’s headed. But that knowledge makes the opening of the movie seem laboured. There’s too much effort in trying to set up the big change, to emphasize the enormity of it. Great pains are taken to show that Einar is a true husband and that he and his wife, Gerda, have a lively and loving sexual relationship. Granted, Einar may not be the most macho of guys; he does seem rather gentle and he smiles too much, but he’s always ready for a tumble in the sack. All this, it seems, is supposed to make his change of identity more dramatic and surprising for us. If only we hadn’t known all along what was coming.

Apart from that problem with the opening of the movie, I found it more interesting than expected. That may be because it’s not the typical story of gender change that we tend to hear in the media these days. It’s not about a man who harbours a troubling secret until he finally decides to break it to his wife. No, this is a case where the husband and wife, at the outset of the matter, jointly enter into his playing the part of a woman. It starts off more or less as a joke between them. The wife takes this female character, Lili, to parties, as a kind of prank. Einar and Gerda are both painters, he more successful than she, but when she starts painting portraits of the mysterious Lili, Gerda becomes a celebrated and successful artist.

The problem for the spouses doesn’t develop until his identification with Lili begins to go much deeper, until he begins to feel that Lili is his real self. The movie doesn’t always succeed at showing the transformations taking place within Einar’s soul – maybe no movie could – but there’s too much of his staring in the mirror while the music tries to express what he’s feeling. However, fascinating complications arise when Einar attempts to go public with the new identity of Lili. There is, for instance, a romantic encounter where it’s hard to tell if the attraction has to do with the fact that the other man (Ben Whishaw) thinks Lili is a natural-born woman or if Lili’s admirer is excited by the fact that he knows he’s dealing with a man dressed as a woman.

I’ve heard some complaint about Eddie Redmayne’s performance, in that his Lili is too prissy, too much a caricature of a woman. But I didn’t find any such fault in Mr. Redmayne’s acting. It’s true, his gestures are a bit precious at times, he’s slightly stilted, he doesn’t seem to slide naturally into the persona of Lili, but how could Einar? This was the 1920s in Denmark. There were no role models for him. As far as we know, no other married man had ever tried to transition publicly to the role of a woman. It’s to be expected, then, that he would be awkward and hesitant.

The only part of the script that I take issue with, in terms of the portrayal of Lili, is that people keep saying how pretty she is. With his gaunt, strong features, Mr. Redmayne is anything but pretty. Give Einar credit for trying, if you want to think of Mr. Redmayne as Einar, but the result makes me think of a remark by Quentin Crisp, the author of the famous memoir The Naked Civil Servant. One of the first publicly and unapologetically gay celebrities, Mr. Crisp said the reason he never dressed in women’s clothes was that they made him look too masculine.

Another problem with the script, in my view, is that these people sometimes sound too modern. I didn’t take notes, so these aren’t exact quotes, but occasionally Gerda tosses off remarks that have the flavour of: "This isn’t the way it’s supposed to go." Or, she’ll end an argument with a grudging "Fine, then!" Not that I know exactly what Danish people in the 1920s would sound like if their remarks were translated into English, but these sorts of utterances sound too contemporary to me. The same could be said of Alicia Vikander’s portrayal of Gerda. Although a beautiful and fascinating actress, Ms. Vikander has a flippant, casual manner that seems to belong more to a cool hipster of today than to a Danish woman of the early 20th century.

The movie does, however, re-create that era beautifully in visual terms. The spacious, high-ceilinged rooms where Einar and Gerda live and work lend themselves to cinematic compositions suggestive of Vermeer. We get gorgeous shots of colourful old buildings and picture-postcard glimpses of sailboats and fishing boats crowded in the harbour. Especially interesting are the odd bonnets, apparently made of newspaper, worn by the fishmonger women.

In spite of all these shots of the scenes around them, it seems that Gerda and Einar live in a somewhat hermetic world. Not so much in terms of geography, but in terms of their emotional lives. We see them on the street, in art galleries and at fancy balls, but their lives seem to be about nothing but art and their troubled sex life. At some point, I found myself thinking: don’t these two people have any family to talk to? Wouldn’t their parents have something to say about what’s going on?

As a couple, the only person they have any very significant relationship with is Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), a childhood friend of Einar’s whom Gerda has contacted. Since Hans has the best – perhaps the only – witticism in the movie, it would be a pity to reveal it here. But his role in the lives of Einar and Gerda never comes clear enough. It appears that maybe he and Einar had some gay feeling for each other as boys; now it seems that Hans may be hoping for a sexual connection with Gerda. His involvement, then, with Einar and Gerda doesn’t help much to give us a sense of their connection to a real world outside their intense emotional turmoil.

At about the three-quarters mark, the movie lags. Maybe that’s because we know it’s heading towards the inevitable, tragic ending. That’s the problem, I guess, when you’re dealing with real-life, historical material. The scriptwriters have to follow the general outlines of the story all the way to its pre-determined ending. They can’t invent stuff to try to make you think that what’s going to happen might not happen.


Les Pcheurs de Perles (Opera) by Georges Bizet; conducted by Gianandrea Noseda; production by Penny Woolcock; starring Diana Damrau, Matthew Polenzani, Mariusz Kwiecien, Nocolas Test; with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; HD Live Broadcast, January 16th.

Apparently, Toronto’s opera lovers were spurred on by the fact that this opera hasn’t appeared at the Met in the last hundred years. It was hard to get tickets for the HD Live broadcast at our local theatre; several other theatres around town were sold out. We luckily managed to scoop up a couple of returned tickets less than twenty-four hours before the show.

Is this production worth all the fuss? Yes, it’s a good show, if not, perhaps, the greatest opera. As conductor Gianandrea Noseda said in the intermission interview, this isn’t the Georges Bizet of Carmen. This opera is perhaps less distinctly marked by the composer’s individual personality. It’s slightly more generic in sound. It’s stirring and tuneful, with several good melodies. Bizet certainly knew that he had a winner in the most famous piece from the opera, the tenor-baritone duet: "Au fond du temple saint." That melody comes back a couple of times, particularly to great effect at the conclusion of the piece.

The story, although corny, has the virtue of being simple; there aren’t a lot of far-fetched complications. We’re in a small village, somewhere in the Far East, where the main industry is pearl-diving. Zurga, the baritone, has just been chosen as leader of the community. Leila, a young priestess, arrives, veiled, and it's her mission to keep the village safe by her prayers. The most important part of her job description is to keep herself pure and inviolate. The problem is that an old friend of Zugar’s, Nadir, the tenor, returns to the village after being away for a while and he recognizes Leila as a girl he once had fallen in love with. You can bet that the resurgence of Nadir’s feelings is going to cause trouble. Also that Zugar’s going to discover that he too has links to Leila. The rivalry between the two men will be reflected in a terrible storm brought on by the gods who are none too pleased.

The Met makes no secret about the fact that the opera was brought back after such a long absence because soprano Diana Damrau wanted to perform the role of Leila, one that she’s done elsewhere. She sings the role with shimmering beauty. As the High Priest, who’s supposed to be keeping a close eye on Leila, Nicolas Test, barefoot and draped in swaths of rough cloth, projects, with his broad shoulders, his sculpted features and his long black locks (maybe not really his), one of the most majestic figures I’ve ever seen on stage.

But it’s perhaps the tenor and the baritone who attract the most attention, at least in part because of their famous duet. I don’t know whether the settings for the sound system had been changed at the Met or at the movie theatre, but it seemed to me that the voices of both Matthew Polenzani (Nadir) and Mariusz Kwiecien (Zugar) had gained a lot in power, resonance and ring since I’d last heard either of them. Their beloved duet was thrilling, not least because you could clearly hear the baritone throughout, as well as the tenor. (Very often, the tenor and the orchestra tend to drown out the baritone in this piece.) Another thing that helped a lot was the attractive male energy radiated by Mr. Kwiecien. In the hype about him, there’s often a certain amount of buzz about his supposed sexiness. I could finally see it now – and not just because he had the wherewithal to go shirtless at one point in the afternoon.

In the intermission interview with host Patricia Racette, these two men managed, quite convincingly, to give the impression of a couple of down-to-earth pals who happen to enjoy the great good luck they have in being able to do this kind of work together. The opposite, you might say, of what would be male versions of divas. I don’t know whether this off-hand, casual attitude is just another example of a couple of performers giving what they think public wants, but it must be at least partly genuine. In any case, it’s pleasant to watch; maybe that’s all that matters.

Given that the resurrection of this opera at the Met could have come off like an antiquarian tribute to a fusty relic of the past, the company’s design team is to be congratulated for coming up with an approach that, while honouring the historical origins of the piece, gave it a fresh, twenty-first-century angle. While most of the villagers were dressed in the traditional colourful robes, some characters, like Nadir and Zugar, wore something like sarongs, topped with ordinary shirts such as you might see on the streets today, and watches on their wrists. In Zugar’s office, a humid-looking enclosure of rusty filing cabinets, we found an old cathrode-ray tv as well as a desktop computer.

The designers’ work was equally brilliant in the broader aspects of the show’s look. The set for the opening scene, by use of many different levels of platforms, like docks and gangplanks, conveyed perfectly the effect of one of those ramshackle villages by the water’s edge. In the final scene, the conflagration of the village in the distance was horrifyingly real. Earlier, by means of video, the huge storm evoked by the wrath of the gods brought on an enormous wave that swept over the village, giving a chill to all of us who can’t forget the terrible tsunami in the Far East just more than ten years ago.

I had thought the opening of the opera was also a video projection: divers plunging through azure water while we heard the orchestral prelude. But an intermission feature – one of the most interesting ones I’ve seen – showed that these "divers" were actual acrobats suspended on harnesses from high above the stage and doing carefully choreographed movements that would make them appear to be plunging through the watery, bubble-aerated medium that was being projected onto a scrim.


Brooklyn (Movie) script by Nick Hornby, based on the novel by Colm Tibn; directed by John Crowley; starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Jane Brennan, Jim Broadbent, Fiona Glascott, Julie Walters, Brid Brennan, Jessica Par, James DiGiacomo, Domhnall Gleeson.

If you’re looking for a movie with a style that doesn’t seem to come along much any more – i.e. one that has sweetness, romance, humour, a touch of sadness, interesting settings and vivid characters – Brooklyn, is the movie for you.

It’s the early 1950s in Ireland and, in this adaptation of  Colm Tibn’s novel, Eilis Lacey, a woman in her late teens, is living in humble circumstances with her mother and her older sister, Rose. Since there doesn’t look to be much of a future for Eilis in their home town, Rose has arranged, through an Irish priest in America, for Eilis to get a job in New York. Thus we get the pangs of separation, the travails of a sea voyage, the difficulties of settling into a job as a salesclerk in a ritzy department store and the challenges of Eilis’s finding her place among the feisty residents of a boarding house. All of this, of course, saturated with homesickness so severe that it’s almost crippling.

Saoirse Ronan, with her unadorned, understated beauty, is perfect as Eilis, the slightly shocked ingenue who keeps to herself most of her reactions to the bizarre goings-on in America. I don’t know whether this is a particularly Irish type of girl, but Ms. Ronan makes it seem like it is: the polite, restrained young female who’s inclined to blurt out candid truths now and then. Emory Cohen, as Tony, the young Italian who spots Eilis at a church dance, makes the perfect foil for Ms. Ronan. His eager, working class charm plays beautifully off her reticence. (His on-screen charisma reminds me of the young Marlon Brando, although there isn’t much other similarity between the two actors.)

One of the great things about the movie is that so many of the other characters are remarkable individuals. The parishioners Eilis encounters outside church back in Ireland include some distinctively Irish eccentrics. The woman who runs the local grocery store (Brid Brennan) is a formidable spinster. Eilis’s mother (Jane Brennan) is one of those austere types who could seem too severe, except for the fact that she does show fairness in the clinch. Eilis’s supervisor in the New York department store (Jessica Par) looks like a haughty model but she turns out to have a humane side to her. Tony’s little brother (James DiGiacomo) is not the typical Hollywood cherub, but a decidedly odd kid. Julie Walters, as the landlady in Eilis’s Brooklyn boarding house, treads a fine line between being something of a clich busybody and a genuinely caring mentor. And if you want to show a kindly priest – perhaps to offset the drubbing the Catholic clergy are getting these days – who could you get to do it better than Jim Broadbent? The sense of the reality and the authenticity of all these characters is grounded in the truthfulness of the visual details. The period – both in Ireland and in America – is captured with great resonance: the dingy interiors, the flowery wallpaper, the fringed lamps, the teacups, the overly-permed hairdos, the flouncy dresses (America), the drab apparel (Ireland), the music, the automobiles.

Apart from a bit of expository dialogue that obtrudes somewhat in the opening scenes, it would be hard to find a flaw in this movie. But is it, with all its appeal, anything other than an enchanting romance? Yes, in a way. That’s because, in this case, we don’t have a simple success story, not the typical onward-and-upward-in-the-New-World theme. (Spoiler alert: we have to touch on a dramatic turning point here) Instead, we have a character who has a chance to turn her back on it all, to try to re-capture the life she left behind. That draws us viewers into her dilemma. What should she do? What would we do if confronted with a choice like hers? If we don’t leave the theatre feeling that this film has opened up deep existential mysteries that we’ve never considered before, we do feel, at least, that we have stood with someone as she faced one of the most difficult decisions that a person could be forced to make.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com