Review: The Danish Girl, About a Transgender Pioneer

Review: <i>The Danish Girl</i>, About a Transgender Pioneer
  • Genre:
    Biography, Drama
  • Cast:
    Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard, Sebastian Koch
  • Director:
    Tom Hooper

The Danish Girl, Tom Hooper’s new film, is a story of individual struggle that is also a portrait of a marriage. In this respect and others it resembles The King’s Speech, Hooper’s earlier historical drama, a multiple Oscar winner a few years ago. In that case, the union of George VI and Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was the foundation on which the tale of George’s elocutionary striving was built. Here, the marriage is bohemian rather than aristocratic, but the stakes, while personal, are every bit as profound and consequential as the matters of state that drove the monarch to the microphone.

When we first encounter Gerda and Einar Wegener, played by Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne, they seem perfectly matched. Both are painters, living amid the soft colors and sea air of Copenhagen in 1926. Gerda is a portraitist, while Einar’s landscapes – drawn from his childhood memories of the fjords and marshlands of Vejle, a town on the Jutland peninsula – have brought him a measure of fame. Like many couples who share a profession, they provide each other with support as well as a bit of competition. Their best friend, Ulla (Amber Heard), a dancer, marvels at their mutual devotion, which combines the easy, egalitarian warmth of friendship with the heat of sexual attraction.

But their relationship turns out to rest on a false premise. Through a process that is by turns wrenching and exciting, Einar discovers that the man the world has always taken him to be is not the person he truly is. What begins as an experiment and a bit of a game – dressing as a woman for the Copenhagen artist’s ball, wearing one of Gerda’s camisoles under his clothes – becomes an existential transformation. For a while, Einar and Gerda pretend that Lili, his female persona, is Einar’s cousin, visiting Copenhagen from the countryside. Henrik (Ben Whishaw), a self-described “romantic,” falls in love with her. But Lili is not Einar in disguise: The truth is exactly the reverse.

Written for the screen by Lucinda Coxon and based on David Ebershoff’s novel of the same title, The Danish Girl is a fictionalized biography of Lili Elbe (as Einar Wegener came to be known), one of the first people to attempt sex reassignment surgery. Lili’s encounters with prevailing medical wisdom, culminating in her meeting with a sympathetic doctor (Sebastian Koch), form a harrowing subplot. And her bravery makes this film a welcome tribute to a heroic forerunner of the current movement for transgender rights. It’s impossible not to be moved by Lili’s self-recognition and by her demand to be recognized by those who care most about her.

But it’s also hard not to wish that The Danish Girl were a better movie, a more daring and emotionally open exploration of Lili’s emergence. As it is, the film, like its heroine for most of her life, is trapped by conventional expectations and ways of being. If, that is, Lili is really the heroine at all. The film’s title phrase is uttered on screen once, by Einar’s childhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), a Paris art dealer, in reference to Gerda. And it is Gerda’s ordeal that provides the narrative with its emotional center of gravity.

When The Danish Girl was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, Kyle Buchanan, writing for Vulture, complained that it was part of a trend of “queer and trans films that are actually about straight people.” Not that the emphasis on Gerda’s experience is illegitimate. She is called upon to support the man she loves as he erases himself from her life, and Vikander registers the anguish and ambivalence, as well as the passionate loyalty, that Gerda feels as Einar gives way to Lili.

But unlike Jill Soloway’s Amazon series Transparent, which embeds gender transition in a dense and detailed weave of family relations, The Danish Girl takes place in the airless, elegant atmosphere of quality filmmaking. Every scene is wrapped around a neat nub of feeling. The dialogue is carefully balanced between modern sensibilities and the imaginary language of Fancy Old Europe, which is really just English spoken in a variety of lovely and heterogeneous accents.

Hooper’s tasteful, earnest, didactic style – magnified by Alexandre Desplat’s decorously overwrought score – does the film no favors. And the asymmetry between the central performances doesn’t help, either. Redmayne is a master of technique, adept at significant gestures, freighted glances and the kind of showiness that masquerades as subtlety. As a result, the passage from Einar to Lili is almost entirely a matter of artifice and surface. Einar’s fingers brush against the ballerina’s dresses hanging in Ulla’s studio. Redmayne alters the angle of his neck, the rhythm of his walk, the timbre of his voice and the set of his mouth. It’s all very impressive, as it was when he traced the progress of Stephen Hawking’s neurological illness in “The Theory of Everything.” But like that much-praised performance, this one does not take us where we need to go, which is inside the character’s mind and spirit.

Vikander, in contrast, acts from the inside out, with an openness and spontaneity that is especially rare in movies like this one. Whether she is painting, smoking, embracing her husband or offering her hand to the woman who replaces him, Gerda is the one figure on screen who seems to breathe the sharp air of reality. The others have been painted, with practiced skill and impeccable intentions, by numbers.

The Danish Girl is rated R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).
Sex, not to be confused with gender.


Neerja Movie Review

<i>Neerja</i> Movie Review
  • Genre:
  • Cast:
    Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi and Shekhar Ravjiani
  • Director:
    Ram Madhvani


Defying every norm laid down in the mainstream Bollywood rule-book, Neerja coaxes a riveting two-hour drama out of a real-life tale of extraordinary courage.

For those old enough to remember how the hijacking of the 1986 Pan Am flight 73 panned out, the details are obviously all in the public domain.

Yet, the need to bring the story of Neerja Bhanot to the big screen cannot be questioned, especially from the point of view of a younger audience.

In this shrill era of arrogant, aggressive nationalism, the qualities of genuine humanism that this spirited film celebrates deserve to be brought to the fore and embraced.

Neerja not only places a woman at its centre, it also showcases the pluck of a flight attendant who makes no distinction between nationalities when her passengers face a grave threat.

She goes out of her way to try and save everybody on board – Indians, Americans, Pakistanis and Brits – without any thought of the cost that she might have to pay.

Director Ram Madhvani opts for just the right emotional amplitude to bring to the screen the exceptional tale of a brave fashion model and flight attendant who, hours shy of her 23rd birthday, laid down her life to save over 350 passengers.

Neerja needs to be applauded for avoiding the garish and gratuitous bells and whistles of commercial Hindi cinema.

It plunges headlong into the life of a bubbly 1980s girl who flies in and out of the country for a living while successfully pursuing a thriving modelling career.

The protagonist, whose personal life revolves around her doting mother (Shabana Azmi), supportive father (Yogendra Tiku), and her milk-white Spitz, is a diehard Rajesh Khanna fan.

Her obsession with Kaka allows a pivotal allusion to ‘Zindagi badi honi chahiye lambi nahin, Babumoshai’ to be woven into the screenplay (written by Saiwyn Quadras).

The transience of existence and the sheer senseless of the violence that snatches away promising lives is contrasted with the large-hearted cheerfulness of Neerja.

There is no way of telling how rough her life has been in the past few months as she looks to make a fresh beginning.

She has a male friend, Jaideep (Shekhar Ravjiani in a special appearance), who might have been her ticket to a second chance in life had fate allowed her a longer stint on earth.

In the early minutes, the film cuts back and forth between Neerja’s chores in the run-up to the last flight of her life and scenes showing a quartet of Palestinian desperadoes prepping for the fateful strike on Pan Am flight 73.

In the time between the plane taking off from Sahar International and reaching cruising altitude, two pithy flashbacks reveal two crucial details of Neerja’s life – an arranged marriage gone sour and her deep bonding with her journalist-father.

But what holds one crucial part of Neerja together is its sensitive and insightful mother-daughter relationship.

It is a film about a hijacking and a girl who did not let gun-toting and explosives-laden terrorists cow her down in the course of a hold-up that lasted 16 hours.

But without the light that it throws on Neerja’s upbringing, it would be just another story of courage under duress. It is much more.

Neerja is a portrait of a family which, like any other Indian family, had to grapple with the notion that a girl-child is vulnerable in our society and, therefore, in need of more protection than her two brothers.

The heroine of this film is a woman of substance who follows her heart and, barring a brush with the boorish husband from whom she breaks free, gets what she wants.

Her mom worries endlessly about her, but cannot stop her from taking wings and flying away in the directions that she loves.

You are doing so well as a model, give up the job of an air hostess, her mother suggests. Neerja’s response is simple enough: “I love my job.”

She loves her calling so much that even when she is put to the sternest test, she sticks to its spirit, taking over the stewardship of the cabin in her capacity as head purser when armed terrorists barge into the plane at Karachi airport.

It is only Neerja’s first flight as head purser, but she leads by example, alerting the pilots in the nick of time and thereby helping them get off the plane through an overhead cockpit hatch.

Without pilots in the cockpit, the wings of the terrorists are literally clipped.

Hindi cinema has of late developed a fondness for real-life role models, but few of these films achieve any degree of verisimilitude, obsessed as they are with dumbing down the story with an eye on a wider audience.

Madhvani does nothing of that sort and is none the worse for it. He has able allies in DoP Mitesh Mirchandani (who captures remarkable depths and details in closed spaces) and editor Monisha Baldawa (who gives the film its pace).

The three main actors in the cast – Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi and Yogendra Tiku – are on top of their game.

Sonam is of course the lynchpin. Even when pushed well out of her comfort zone, she is completely convincing and real as the bubbly youngster with nerves of steel.

Shabana Azmi informs her role with subtle nuances that add startling layers to the characterization.

Yogendra Tiku, a competent actor who rarely gets the play he deserves in Hindi cinema, conveys the welled-up emotions of a father egging her daughter on to be in control of her own life.

If it is going to be just one Hindi film this week, make sure it is Neerja.

It is a powerful story that tugs gently and delicately at the heartstrings.

It does not go overboard on attacking the lachrymal glands. But when it does, it is bang on.


Five Key Takeaways From Our LeEco Le 1s Review

Five Key Takeaways From Our LeEco Le 1s Review

LeEco’s budget Le 1s smartphone has received tremendous response from consumers in India, according to the company. The first flash sale of the LeEco Le 1s last week saw 70,000 units going out of stock in just 2 seconds, and the claims for the second flash sale were equally impressive.

The Le 1s packs a fingerprint scanner, full-HD display, and an all metal body that will keep feature-obsessed consumers happy. To recall, the Le 1s comes to India carrying a price tag of Rs. 10,999. If you are thinking of buying the smartphone, here are five takeaways from our LeEco Le 1s review to help you decide.

1) Good build quality
The Le 1s is made almost entirely of metal, save for two plastic strips running along the top and bottom of the rear for the various antennas to work. The front face is pretty slick, with black glass surrounding the screen and extending all the way to the two sides. The Chinese company at the India launch had stressed that the Le 1s is the first phone featuring a silver mirror-finished fingerprint sensor lower down and in the middle on the back panel.

(Also see: Le 1s full specifications)

2) USB Type-C and quick charging
LeEco (the company formerly known as LeTV) was one of the first companies that launchedsmartphones with USB Type-C ports last year. Type-C has been undoubtedly been displacing Micro-USB this year but LeEco is still ahead of the curve here.

The company ships a non-standard USB cable with a modified type-A plug on the charger end. It works like any other USB cable, except that you don’t have to worry about which way is up. In order to achieve this, the plug’s inner tongue has been made really thin, and we hope it won’t snap. During our review, we found out that the Le 1s quick charging feature saved the day – the device comes with a really bulky charger, but it paid off when we were able to boost up to a double-digit battery percentage in just a few minutes. To recall, the smartphone sports a 3000mAh battery.

3) The software needs some work
One of the biggest surprises during our review was the Le 1s’s software shortcomings. It runs the dated Android 5.0.2 with LeEco’s heavy eUI skin. The company skin dispenses with the app drawer, much like other phones from Chinese handset brands, and there weren’t as many customisation options.

The most difficult thing to get used to was that all shortcuts and quick settings were moved to the app switcher screen. It looks like a mashup of iOS 7’s Control Centre and app switcher and is functional enough, but it seems as though LeEco wanted to be different just for the sake of being different.

There were not many preloaded apps – Yahoo Weather, and an app called My LeTV which is a gateway to the company’s cloud storage and security services. The phone was also surprisingly sparse when it came to settings and enhancements. Overall, the software experience was a bit of a let-down, making the whole experience felt unpolished.

(Also see: Le 1s Sale: What You Need to Know)

le_1s_rear_gadgets360.jpg4) Impressive performance
During our detailed review, we liked using the Le 1s for the most part, and it did feel good in the hands as well. We were happy to note that the phone didn’t get too hot in use, even after gaming and running stress tests. Only a bit of warmth could be felt towards the top of the rear. We were pleasantly surprised by the phone’s speaker, which pumped out pretty loud and rich sound.

5) Average camera
The camera on the Le 1s is pretty average in terms of performance. In our review, we saw primary camera struggled a bit with detailing and exposure. It however managed to pull off quite a few good shots including close-ups which were the best, though there was still noise and murkiness to natural textures. Low-light shots looked impressive at first but were completely unusable if enlarged to actual size. You’ll be fine if you only want to share photos on social media, but not for anything beyond that. Videos were also adequate for a phone that costs this much.


Full text: Name and shame the states behind non-state actors, says Foreign Secretary Jaishankar

Full text: Name and shame the states behind non-state actors, says Foreign Secretary Jaishankar
Photo Credit: IANS
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Full text of the address by Foreign Secretary at the Counter-Terrorism Conference-2016 in Jaipur

I am very pleased to join you all this afternoon as this conference deliberates on the challenges of Counter Terrorism. Various sessions have addressed different aspects of this issue, including the role of technology and social media, financing and infrastructure, networking and cooperation, history and religion, as well as a range of national, regional and global responses. My focus today is on how Indian diplomacy perceives this complicated problem, how we propose conceptually to address it, and what could be the possible policy options and challenges that may arise in that process. It is possible that you may consider aspects of the approach overly ambitious. However, good diplomacy rarely sets itself a low bar, particularly on matters of vital national and international security.

Let me begin with the challenge itself. Terrorism is today widely seen as a truly global scourge. That in itself is a great improvement over an era where it was perceived in compartmentalised and geopolitical terms, as a law and order issue, an instrument of statecraft or an expression of beliefs. That era created the adage that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. No longer. The world does not accept today that any ‘root cause’ justifies terrorism. And it is becoming harder by the day to be openly selective on targeting terrorists. There are numerous reasons for these changes. Among them are experiences that have brought out an inability to “manage” terrorism as a controlled exercise over any length of time. This bears some resemblance to how the world’s approach to piracy evolved. Indeed, if we were to delve into a world of parallels, you may also recall how the challenge of chemical weapons or even that of treatment of prisoners unfolded in the global discourse. In these cases, nation states came to the conclusion that the benefits of exercising such options were outweighed by the costs of doing so. Equally, there was the realisation that the perpetrator could also end up as a victim. It is only when there is a broad sense of danger that the possibility of a regime to address that emerges.

We are, I believe, in that phase of deliberation today where the aim could be a consensus among the states of the international community to outlaw terrorism and delegitimise it as a tool of politics. Of course, such a line of thinking should not detract from specific and practical ways of countering terrorism. On the contrary, we should appreciate that this is a vital but currently missing piece of the puzzle. The counter-terrorism watch that many governments now keep will work best if it can be put in a larger construct. So far, however, the practical day-to-day aspect has dominated global response. But a framework will certainly help local action fit global norms, generating coherence in national responses and fostering international cooperation.

It is worth reflecting in this context that the world now has international conventions prohibiting the possession and use of chemical weapons and restricting those of nuclear weapons. At some point of time, both were regarded as utopian objectives. But now they have come to be accepted as an underpinning part of the contemporary international system. There are a number of other regimes which have emerged in recent years, including on narcotics trade, illegal financing, counterfeiting or infringing copyrights. So, the question we need to ask ourselves is why the challenge of countering terror cannot be broadly addressed.

The embryo of building such response exists in frameworks like the Financial Action Task Force or FATF that sets standards with respect to combating money laundering and terrorist financing. Or the Egmont Group, which is an informal network of Financial Intelligence Units. Others such as the Al Qaeda, Taliban & ISIS Sanctions Committee of the United Nations Security Council are also relevant instruments. But they do not yet provide an effective answer, most importantly, as they do not reflect a unified global response for reasons of national expediency.

Comprehensive Convention

The first serious attempt to approach terrorism from a regime perspective is our own initiative of tabling a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism at the United Nations. This was done two decades ago. Interestingly, the initiative has now gathered greater traction as the spectre of global terrorism appears more threatening. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, let me highlight its key elements:

  • It proposes to list several acts of unlawful and intentional violence that constitute an offence which all Parties are required to establish as criminal offences under their domestic laws.
  • All Parties have to ensure these criminal acts are under no circumstances justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature. They are also to prohibit the establishment and operation of installations and training camps for the commission of such offences.
  • The State Party, in the territory of which the alleged offender is present, has to submit the case without undue delay to its competent authorities for prosecution.
  • Offences set forth in this Convention shall be deemed to be extraditable offences in any extradition treaty existing between any of the State Parties.

Any regime, to be effective, must enforce two key concepts: assigning responsibility and ensuring accountability. Obviously that would require a set of norms that are universally applied and enforced. Now, the very basis of the contemporary international order is that nation states are its basic unit and each government takes responsibility for developments and actions within its territory. Indeed, when confronted with situations where that ability no longer exists, we term those polities as failed states and treat them as such. Furthermore, if actions emanating from a national territory impinge negatively on others, the government of that nation is, at the very least, pressed to probe and explain as the first step in a process of accountability. This holds true for nuclear and missile proliferation, for chemical weapons, for pandemics, and nowadays, even for suspect financial transactions. Why should that not be for countering terrorism?

Non-state actors

This is now where the “non-state” actor comes in; occasionally as a genuine outcome of governance incapability, but more often as an escape clause. It isn’t difficult in this modern age to trace the roots of a terrorist attack to a particular geography. The standing of those involved in terrorism in any society is not difficult to establish either. Clearly, it means something if they operate openly out of a big city with a known address, than if they live in a remote cave or an isolated jungle hideout. A paradigm, however, is not just about its human element. Terrorists use weapons that have clear sources of origin. They need financing and money usually leaves a trail. They deal with commodities; traders and brokers cannot be secrets. We have seen, in other areas, the effectiveness of controlling both upstream and downstream activities. Why not in countering terrorism?

In most cases, it is difficult for non-state actors to operate without the support and connivance of states. If we can move in the direction of a state-centred regime based on strict responsibility and accountability, that would certainly have a major impact on the freedom of non-state actors to propagate, operate and perpetrate. If nothing else, it would narrow the problem considerably and allow genuine non-state actors to be tackled in a more targeted manner.

That broad sense of responsibility is unfortunately still not there yet, even among nations that are themselves victims of terrorism. We have seen in the 1267 Committee and sometimes even in the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) how specious arguments are advanced to block action on ostensibly technical grounds. But as the footprint of terrorism expands and assumptions of immunity erode, this is going to be harder to sustain. Remember, the non-state actor used to be a convenient excuse once upon a time in nuclear proliferation as well. As the dangers of that fig leaf became increasingly apparent, it was quietly abandoned. Since 9/11, a series of initiatives have pushed governments to assume their national responsibility, to seek help, share information and to cooperate with other governments to deny non-state actors access to nuclear material and facilities. A patchwork architecture of legal instruments has underpinned this shift. My argument is that many endeavours are deemed unrealistic – until they actually happen.

Name and shame

Even as we work to advance the prospects of a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, there are a number of interim steps that can be taken. The most important of them is to exercise the ability to cause repetitional damage. Naming and shaming must be carried out relentlessly in the case of perpetrators, supporters and connivers of terrorism. Tolerance for double standards on this issue must be equally frankly exposed. After all, this works in other areas – whether we speak of financial defaulters, nuclear proliferators, illegal traders or just regular violators of law. The pressure of international public sentiments can make the costs of terrorism escalate well beyond the calculations of its practitioners. A second and related activity is to use diplomacy to isolate those indulging in terrorism. Eliciting statements of solidarity when attacks happen and expressions of policy independent of happenings have a value often underestimated. To do this effectively, it is important that we do not ascribe characteristics to terrorism – whether they be of religion, region or ethnicity.

What may work in the case of states will obviously not always do so with non-state forces. They have no reputation to lose. If anything, they thrive on a bad one. Clearly, a different menu of diplomatic options has to be considered in their case. The key point here is that terrorists, like all other creatures, need an ecosystem to grow in. Admittedly, there are broader debates of countering extremism and radicalisation that are vital to the preventive aspects of terrorism. But more often than not, it is the state that provides the oxygen for non-state activities. Moving beyond discouraging state sponsorship of terrorism, the next step is therefore to build effective inter-state cooperative mechanisms to combat it. That is already work in progress, admittedly in its early stages. But there are issues today before the international community that beg answers. Where do potential terrorists go for training? Or how does their financing work? In many cases, we know the answers and yet choose to look away. Of equal concern is that our reaction to terrorism in some geographies is different from others. Old habits may die hard but new realities cannot be wished away. We are currently witnessing the impact of the Middle East on Europe, a development waiting to happen and yet not anticipated! Another caution worth reflecting on is to resist the temptation of buying peace at home by striking deals elsewhere. Terrorism should not be confused for social media, with our responses limited to the “trending” activities. Because new threats have emerged does not mean that the tested ones have gone away. At the end of the day, much would depend on persuading states to refrain from using terrorism as a card in the games that nations play. For those who continue to be tempted, all I can say is that is enough history to demonstrate that the care-givers of terrorism are bitten by those they nurture.

Utility of lawfare

Countering terrorism is a priority imperative for Indian diplomacy. The role of diplomacy in facilitating intelligence cooperation and building national capabilities cannot be overstated. We have made major strides in putting in place practical cooperation with a number of countries. This is a sensitive and cumulative exercise, of building trust and habits of working together. Our counter-terrorism and security dialogues which bring together experts from all the relevant fields in regular bilateral and multilateral interactions are an important diplomatic tool. So too is the daily work of forums such as the FATF and UN Committees to deny terrorists financing and other forms of support. And my key point today: don’t ignore the utility of lawfare – the power of legal arguments – in the menu of counter-terrorist solutions, or the impact of world opinions.

The 9/11 Commission brought out two major limitations in government’s response to terrorism that I take to be universal observations: those of imagination and those of integration. The first is an infinite proposition. But on the second, we in India, are moving to a more “whole of the government” approach towards countering terrorism. I can say from personal experience that this is reflected in the manner in which we have approached developments earlier in the year. That we have a special envoy dedicated to this range of issues also speaks for itself. The problem that the world faces is that while the bad guys think global, the good guys still think national, sometimes still departmental. Encouraging a “whole of the world” approach in countering terrorism is one of the major goals of Indian diplomacy. We have, admittedly, a long journey ahead but every journey begins with the first steps.