It’s the Oscar’s second consecutive year of selecting twenty all-white Best Acting nominees. Additionally, not a single Best Picture nominee has a non-white lead actor or actress, and there is only one Best Director nominee of color. Redeeming? Not even a little bit. One thing that we can notice, however, is that LGBTQ+ stories are slowly becoming more mainstream: less of a topic to spark discussions and confrontations amid bites of popcorn (beyond how “feminine” Eddie Redmayne became for the role), and more of the norm.
In this case, I am speaking about two of this year's most widely and positively reviewed films: Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, and The Danish Girl, starring Redmayne and Alicia Vikander.
I am not forgetting the fact that none of the three actors in these films are actually lesbian or transgender themselves, or that neither of the stories feature queer or trans people of color. Both films did receive two Acting nominations, however: one each in the Leading (Blanchett and Redmayne) and Supporting (Mara and Vikander) categories.
I will not attempt to compare these two films; rather I will review them alongside each other.
Neither films take place in an era when lesbians, trans, and other gender nonconforming and queer folks were at all seen as “regular” or “normal.” The Danish Girl takes place in mid-1920s Copenhagen, sparkling with fine art, music, and fashion; Carol takes place in mid-1950s Manhattan, filled with big, beautiful cars and bouffant hairstyles. Neither time period involves acceptance of gay, lesbian, and trans people, let alone a vocabulary consisting of those terms.
While doing some last-minute Christmas shopping in Manhattan, Carol Aird, a beautiful, sophisticated, and soon-to-be-divorced New Jersey homemaker, spots a shop girl named Therese across the merchandise floor. Blanchett pours every possible ounce of muted seduction into Carol, from her first comment on Therese’s Santa hat attire (“I like the hat”) on.
Their romance unfolds through longing looks, fingers laying on shoulders, and a lengthy, almost claustrophobic, road trip. Rooney Mara is similarly able to capture an innocent yet incredibly curious young woman trying to escape the social norms of heterosexual desire and marriage that make her so unhappy.
Carol is an adaptation of the 1952 novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith. The adaptation did not attempt to modernize the story at all, or present it from a more modern and accepting perspective.
If there’s one word I have used to describe Carol, it’s ‘subtle’, and overwhelmingly so.
Many things go unmentioned or unnamed: “lesbians” or “homosexuals” become “those kinds of people;” Carol is slapped with a “morality clause” by her estranged husband in their child custody proceedings due to her past homosexual experiences. She even undergoes shock therapy as a cure for her condition, but this is merely mentioned and never developed as a side story line. It’s as if the film was made in the 1950s, granted for a very selective audience.
The Danish Girl, on the other hand, my one word description would simply be ‘beautiful’. Interspersed shots of the Danish coast and countryside mirror the elegance of Copenhagen, pre-War Dresden, and Roaring Twenties Paris.
Eddie Redmayne transforms into the delicately alluring Lili Elbe, a Danish artist initially known as Einar Wegener and one of the first identifiable recipients of sexual affirmation surgery. Lili’s transformation begins with a simple game of dress-up: her wife Gerda, also an artist, needs her to pose as a ballerina to model for one a painting. They then decide to dress her up as the newly named Lili for an artist soirée and make a ruse out of it.
As Einar becomes Lili, and Lili becomes a more real and constant presence both in Einar’s mind and in Gerda’s world, they begin to grapple with the real world outside their dreamy, echoey apartment. As Einar seeks the affirmation surgery, the couple must battle judgment and disbelief. “I believe I am a woman,” Einar utters, almost embarrassed, to the tenth doctor they seek out. “I believe it too,” commands Gerda.
The Danish Girl is really both Redmayne and Vikander’s film, so much so that I think Vikander should have been considered for the Best Actress nomination rather than Supporting Actress. There’s a depth, truth, and unsettledness that makes the film and their performances all the more powerful.
The film is also a transformation for director Tom Hooper, who usually puts out grandiose, elegant crowd-pleasers (The King’s Speech and Les Misérables). Unlike those films, with an easy target audience and easily likeable stories and characters, Lili Elbe’s story is certainly not an “easy” tale. But Hoopers’ finesse for creating approachable hits (at the box office and at the Oscars) did wonders in turning Lili and Gerda’s heart-wrenching struggle into an attainable and pleasing two-hour spectacle.
In a landmark year for gay rights and trans visibility, it’s simply fitting that two of the years’ most critically successful films are not only about the LGBTQ+ community, but feature two women characters as leads. Sensuality, beauty, and elegance make both these films equal parts captivating, unsettling, and dynamic.