“The Danish Girl” is a beautiful, painful film about gender identity.

He watches her as she undresses, his gaze intense, scrutinising. Her nightdress is silk, with black lace trimming. “It’s pretty,” he tells her. “Well, I might let you borrow it,” she quips. “I might like that,” he smiles. “Is there something you’re not telling me?” she says with a smile of her own. “Is there something you’d like to know?” “No. I’m your wife. I know everything.” This scene, this piece of dialogue speaks to the heart of the acclaimed film, The Danish Girl.

Set in Copenhagen in 1929, the film tells the story of a young married couple, Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander). Both are artists, but only Einar’s work, a series of interpretations of the same landscape, sells and elicits critical acclaim. Gerda’s attempts to sell her own work fail repeatedly. One gallery owner tells her, “You could be a first class painter if you find the right subject matter.” Amid this, the couple tries to conceive a first child.

When Gerda asks her husband to pose for her in stockings and slippers so she can complete the painting of her dancer friend, Ulla (Amber Heard), something stirs in Einar. He hesitantly strokes the silk stockings, trembling, staring at it with wonder. As a joke, Gerda suggests Einar attends a ball, dressed as a woman, pretending to be his female cousin. They find a wig for Einar, clothes, and Gerda teaches him how to do his make up, to walk, sit, and gesture like a woman would. And so, Lili Elbe, Einar’s ‘cousin’ is born. When Gerda lovingly paints Lili’s portrait, her art is finally taken seriously. Her works are haunting, mysterious.

At the dance, the shy Lili meets Hendrik (Ben Whishaw), who kisses her in an empty room. A shocked Gerda spots the two. Both Einar and Gerda are thrown off balance by the incident. Yet, Gerda continues to paint Lili, not fully understanding that Einar’s transformation is more than a game. What follows is a complex and dark journey for both. There is a scene in which Einar stands in front of a full-length mirror, examining his male body, tucking his away his penis to look like a female. The pain on his face is a punch to the gut.

It’s the 1920s though; gender identity cannot be questioned. Homosexuality, transgender, intersex: these identities were seen as physical or mental illnesses that could be ‘cured’ through radiation, therapy, brain surgery, or hospitalisation at institutions for mental illness. At Gerda’s request, Einar/Lili tries radiation, which (obviously) doesn’t work.

This film is difficult and uncomfortable, to say the least. It’s not only about the agony of a transgender person to accept who they are, but also the pain of those who love them, particularly romantic partners, who have to let them go. Gerda has to accept that she will lose her husband, an excruciating and bitter pill to swallow. Einar’s true self was suppressed and yet there were hints of it. Gerda explains how she was the one who courted Einar. “It was the strangest thing. It was like kissing myself,” she explains to friends, shortly before Einar admits the truth. But painful as the film is, it’s also transformative.

The Danish Girl is a heartrending, complicated, and beautiful work, both visually and as a story. The cinematography is masterful, creating a film that is painterly and mirrors art. Houses reflecting on a canal, clouds streaking across a pale dawn – these are the brushstrokes of Impressionist paintings. Tom Hooper, who won an Academy Award in 2010 for directing The King’s Speech, tells this extraordinary and brave story (which is based on the 1933 memoir called “Man into Woman”, the true story of the Wegeners and Lili Elbe) with sensitivity, sensuality, and sophistication.

The acting is superb. Redmayne won an Oscar last year for playing the painful physical transformation of phycisist Steven Hawking, and in The Danish Girl, his role is also about transfiguration, earning him another nomination this year. It’s astonishing to watch his metamorphosis. At first, one only sees Lili as Einar, a man dressed as a woman. As the film progresses, one only sees Lili. At the same time, Alicia Vikander is considered one of the frontrunners for the best supporting actress award. Her performance too tells the story of painful transformation, but also, of unconditional love.

Director: Tom Hooper

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard

Rating: 4 out of 5

SA release date: 29 January 2016

Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” is a love-hate Western murder-mystery.

Writer/director Quentin Tarantino is one of the seminal auteur-filmmakers of our time, and in The Hateful Eight, he shows off his talent for original storytelling and unique filmmaking. And yet, as a fan of Tarantino, I confess that I neither hated nor loved his eighth film, set in post-Civil War Wyoming.

Bounty hunter, John Ruth (Kurt Russell), is on his way to the town of Red Rock to deliver his prisoner, the murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), when he comes across another notorious bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Warren’s horse has died and he’s trying to drag his own bounty – three frozen corpses – through the snow. Upon recognising Warren, Ruth allows the major into his stage coach, prompting Domergue to spew a river of foul-mouthed, racist one-liners along the way. Warren is intriguing; he not only fought for the Yanks in the civil war, but he’s friends with Abraham Lincoln, or at least, they’re “pen pals”, and Warren has a letter to prove it.

On their way through the snow, they come across another man screaming for help. Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock, and reluctantly, Ruth allows the former Confederate soldier into the carriage, resulting in more racial slurs being flung at Warren, who has more than enough wit to laughingly some spew back some venom of his own.

With a blizzard on their tail, the four decide to stop at a cabin, a kind of halfway house called “Minnie’s Haberdashery”. Upon arrival, Minnie’s nowhere to be found, but four other characters are already holed up there.

Bob the Mexican (Damián Bichir) claims to be watching the place as Minnie’s gone to pay someone a visit “up north”. The Brit, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), says he’s a hangman on his way to Red Rock to string up some rope, and some baddies along with it. Among the condemned, is Domergue. Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) is a quiet ‘cowboy’, writing a book, while the elderly General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) is a (super) racist former Confederate commander. Together, they form a hateful eight, a group of awful and abhorrent men and one woman, stuck in a room for a couple of days, until the blizzard dies down.

The setup is reminiscent of an Agatha Christie murder mystery; a group of different characters in one setting, all with secrets, and some with murderous intentions. It’s clear from the moment all eight are thrown together it won’t be a peaceful companionship, as no one seems to be who they say they are. And then, an unknown killer among them strikes, while they are all in the room, resulting in a gory whodunit.

Like most Tarantino films, the storyline of The Hateful Eight is non-linear: the film is divided into six “chapters”. The first three are continuous; chapter four flashes back to 15 minutes before the first body falls; chapter five goes further back to earlier that morning; and chapter six moves back to the present to provide the resolution. The film is typical of Tarantino with its tropes of the Western genre, like the untamed wilderness (the harsh and lonely winter landscape of Wyoming), gunslingers, outlaws, and Mexican standoffs, as well as the director’s proclivity for torture porn-style violence amid dialogue-heavy script full of witticisms.

The ensemble case is marvellous. Samuel L. Jackson stars in his sixth Tarantino film, and is as sharp-tongued and defiant as ever. And, Jennifer Jason Leigh more than deserves her Oscar nomination for playing the somewhat paradoxical Daisy Domergue. She’s a filthy, backward, racist murderer, but there’s a scene in which she picks up a guitar and sings a haunting melody, even while her teeth are knocked out and blood has dried over her face from blows dealt by Ruth. And just when you start feeling an atom of compassion, she turns back into a trashy Southerner.

The Hateful Eight contains everything that you love about Tarantino films – blood, hate, revenge, strange characters, and creative jibes and wisecracks. So why not a four or five-star rating?

In truth, the film is just too damn long. The running time is three hours and seven minutes, and it takes nearly an hour and a half for Ruth, Domergue, Warren, and Mannix to make it to the cabin. That means the first half of the film is the slow introduction of half the characters. The action only starts when they reach “Minnie’s Haberdashery”, and to be frank, the first half is tedious and boring. The film would be a standout if the editors shaved around 40 minutes off. And, to be honest, Tarantino’s persistent use of the racial slur, n*gger, is overdone, even if the term is also used by black characters. The director has always used the word in context, such as during the slave story of Django Unchained, and, in the The Hateful Eight’s setting of post-Civil War, it’s not unexpected. But, context or not, it becomes a drag, which in turn becomes offensive.

Director/writer: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Damián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern.

Rating: 3 out of 5

SA release date: 29 January 2016

“Singin’ in the Rain” leaves you gloriously happy.

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Grant Almirall as Don Lockwood in Singin’ In The Rain. Credit: Hagen Hopkins.

What could be better than watching tap dance and singing on a stage while rain pours down? The delightful musical, Singin’ in the Rain, has opened at the Teatro at Monte Casino. Based on the 1950s film of the same name (starring Gene Kelley and Debbie Reynolds), the stage version is just as rambunctious and fun.

The musical adheres closely to the plot of the film. It’s 1927 and movies are about to change forever as silent film makes way for “talkies”. Producers at Monumental Films studio are dismissive of the new format, but when The Jazz Singer, the first talkie, is a smash hit, they realise they’ll have to change with the times. Monumental Films’ two biggest stars and regular onscreen couple, Don Lockwood (Grant Almirall) and Lina Lamont (Taryn-Lee Hudson), have been golden money makers. Up to now.

The decision by producer, RF Simpson (James Borthwick), to change the latest Lockwood-Lamont film, The Duelling Cavelier, into a talkie is a disaster. A preview screening leaves the audience baffled and shocked at Lina’s hilarious but horrendously high-pitched voice (think Fran Drescher times two) and, what sounds like a drawling Syracuse New York accent. But what to do? Don’s best friend and musician, Cosmo Brown (Steven van Wyk), comes up with the idea to use Don’s love interest, the talented Kathy Selden (Bethany Dickson), to dub Lina’s dialogue. Simpson also believes the film should be made into a musical, with singing and tap dancing, despite the film being set during the French Revolution.

Kathy is a newcomer to the acting scene and has the pure, angelic voice needed to pull off the new movie. The Duelling Cavalier becomes The Dancing Cavalier. But Lina is not happy with the substitution, and in jealousy and spite, does all in her power to derail Kathy’s potential career as a lead actress, and her relationship with Don.

Singin’ in the Rain provides childlike delight. There’s nothing dark about this musical; all the conflict is humorous. The only real hint at depth is a screechy song by a sulky Lina, in which she asks “what’s wrong with me?” “Nothing,” she concludes.

The roles are perfectly cast. Grant Almirall, recently seen as Frankie Vallie in Jersey Boys, is wonderful as the confident, suave Don. Bethany Dickson’s sweet voice as Kathy Selden is in stark contrast to the shrill Lina, while Steven van Wyk’s Cosmo Brown is a real good-natured, ‘everybody’s pal’. Taryn-Lee Hudson is smashing as Lina, the archetypal dumb blonde whose parrot-like screech is like taking a cheese grater to the brain. Her performance is the funniest of all and garnered the most laughs at the opening night.

The stage design is rather wonderful, with a floor that can carry a deluge of water in which to dance, before having to be dried again quickly for the actors not to slip in subsequent scenes. For those worried about the current drought, fear not, the water is recycled back into the tank above the stage. The set also includes the separately-filmed black and white movies that star Don and Lina (watch out for the hilarious talkie blunder), which is shown on a large screen, as in a cinema.

Singin’ in the Rain is the perfect antidote to the Sunday blues. Or Monday blues. Any kind of blues, really. It’s impossible not to feel “happy again”, and the famous singing-dancing scene in the rain, and the colourful finale, are some of the best payoffs in any theatre musical. Oh, and if you’re sitting in the front, you might want to bring a raincoat.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Singin’ in the Rain is on at the Teatro at Monte Casino until 13 March 2016.

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