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There are times when the truth is so repulsive you feel sick. You feel dirty, like you want to scrub yourself with a steel brush, outside and inside. There are times where it feels like it would be better not to know the truth. It’s in times like these that stellar journalism, the kind that rocks foundations, is necessary to shine a light on that which is ugly, in order to change it.
The film, Spotlight, is the riveting true story of how the Boston Globe’s investigative magazine by that name, uncovered a scandal of global proportions. In 2001, the Globe hires a new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a quiet, thoughtful man. Baron is a sceptical about the purpose of a magazine that doesn’t churn out regular copy, but nevertheless, assigns them a story. He’s read a column in the Globe about a lawyer who claims Cardinal Law – the Archbishop of Boston – was aware that a priest had been sexually abusing children and did nothing to stop it. Baron tells the small team of elite investigative reporters that there might be a bigger story, and to dig deeper.
At first, Spotlight editor, Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and Globe editor, Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery) are wary and not convinced there is a larger story beyond one or two incidents of abuse. Furthermore, the Church is involved in nearly aspect of the Boston community. Fourty percent of the population is Catholic. The records regarding the abuse case are sealed, and to get to them, the paper would have to sue the Church. This would not go down well with readers. And, it would be a time-consuming project.
But, Spotlight’s small team of investigative journalists are used to taking up to a year to complete a story. The tenacious reporters, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) begin. It’s slow work. Investigative journalism is about patience, slogging, chipping away at something, running up against walls most of the time. Despite these walls, it becomes clear there is something much more sinister troubling Boston, a cover up on a grand scale that goes right to the heart of the Church.
The trio begins to interview victims of abuse. Soon, they find dozens, all of whom had been silenced by shame, or measly legal settlements with the Church. “They say it’s just physical abuse,” one of them says, “but it’s more than that, this was spiritual abuse. You know why I went along with everything? Because priests are supposed to be the good guys.” There is a scene in which Sasha tracks down a priest accused of abuse. She knocks on his door, he opens, and when she questions him, he admits to “fooling around”, but denies it was wrong because he didn’t take any “gratification” from it. It’s difficult to find the words to describe how to respond to this: shock, bewilderment, disbelief.
The impact of this story, which took a year of investigative work to complete, reverberates across time, to this day. My hairs stood on end as I watched, in horror. My revulsion wasn’t reserved for the abusers, but the realisation of another awful truth: everyone is complicit in some way. Those who knew, and said nothing are just as guilty as the abusers themselves. The dodgy lawyers who helped the Church get away with it. And indeed, the media who didn’t dig deeper. Another survivor, Mitchell Garabedian, explains “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them. That’s the truth of it.”
Investigative journalists will tell you that movies tend to glamorise hard, often unrewarding work. This film does the opposite: it shows the frustration, and anguish of working on this type of story, day by day living and breathing it. And yet, without any action sequences or death threats, director Tom McCarthy keeps the tension throughout. The acting is a marvel in that no one steals the spotlight (I had to) from anyone else. Just like the reporters who worked on this story, all the actors are equally excellent, which earned them a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast. The film has also been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Motion Picture and Supporting Actor and Actress nominations for Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams.
Many of us knows how this story ends, but there is something special in watching how it was done, the titanic struggle of the reporters to shine the light and drive out evil. “Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we spend most of our time stumbling around the dark,” Baron tells the team, when they realise they should have discovered these stories much sooner. “Suddenly, a light gets turned on and there’s a fair share of blame to go around. I can’t speak to what happened before I arrived, but all of you have done some very good reporting here. Reporting that I believe is going to have an immediate and considerable impact on our readers. For me, this kind of story is why we do this.”
Director: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Liev Schreiber, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery.
Rating: 4 out of 5
SA release date: 5 February 2016
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