Review: The Danish Girl

In The Danish Girl, we have one of the very first high-profile movies about transgender people – who still struggle for recognition and acceptance in western society (let alone anywhere less liberal/more traditional). Considering the weight of responsibility and power such a film has, it’s good that this movie is a respectful, subtle representation, and Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander once again show how brilliant a pair of actors they are.

Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is a famous Danish landscape artist, and his wife Gerda (Vikander) a portrait artist, with Gerda struggling to reach the heights of her husband’s success. After asking Einar to pose as a woman for her, Gerda’s artwork starts to gain serious recognition, but Einar experiences an internal awakening that leads him towards accepting he is a woman, whom the pair call Lili Elbe. As Einar transitions towards becoming Lili, Gerda’s battle between her love for her husband and her need to be loved is sorely tested, while Lili’s fight for acceptance in the 1920s faces obstacle after obstacle.

Redmayne, as in The Theory of Everything last year, is a remarkable actor (and even in crap like Jupiter Ascending he makes an impact), and his portrayal of the real-life Einar/Lili is nothing short of astounding. His feminine features help him to inhabit the turmoil and metamorphosis of Einar/Lili, and from Einar’s early aping of female movement, gestures and posture, Redmayne gives the viewer a sense of emergence and change, as well as his light voice (which only seems to lighten further as Einar becomes Lili). You also really feel the inner pain and anguish of someone desperate to become what they truly believe they are, and while Einar/Lili’s story is both uplifting and bittersweet, it’s a real credit to Redmayne that he slowly, lightly and convincingly portrays one of the first notably transgender people respectfully and thoughtfully. I’d expect him to be nominated for many awards as with The Theory of Everything, because he’s genuinely an actor who doesn’t seem to have an upper limit.The_Danish_Girl_(film)_poster

Vikander also seems to be set for the same ascendancy – I thought as much with Ex Machina – and the character of Gerda is the sort that you wouldn’t really expect to see in the ’20s. She’s a chain-smoking, liberally-minded woman who has to deal with this great conflict, and this sense of guilt she feels for having begun Einar/Lili’s transition. I really enjoyed watching her performance, because Vikander is able to so subtly hint at emotions bubbling up underneath, and you feel her pain more keenly. How many other stories would have the wife be horrified and leave? Instead, Gerda is understanding to a fault, and this intense loyalty and love is the cornerstone of the film. Without Vikander, I don’t think I’d have been half as engaged, but you really root for her, and I would be really surprised if she wasn’t recognised for this performance.

Of the supporting cast, not many make much of an impact. Matthias Schoenarts, as Einar’s friend Hans – integral to quite a lot of the story – is one of those actors who looks brash but acts softly, and his compassion for both his old friend and his wife makes him quite a different “other guy” in this story. Ben Whishaw’s Henrik takes to Lili on her first appearance, and his strong feelings help bring out the conflict in the character, with Whishaw quietly impressive without much to do. Amber Heard is interesting casting as the Wegener’s friend Ulla, but seems to completely disappear after the first 30 minutes, and I felt that it would have been better to cut the character completely or at least give her more to do. Finally, Sebastian Koch (recently of Bridge of Spies) is Dr. Warnerkos, the only man prepared to accept Einar’s need to become Lili, and the actor wears the burden of responsibility heavily, showing a great deal of care and concern, as well as understanding – something that would have been very rare at the time.

Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables and The King’s Speech) delivers another tasteful, well-shot film here, with his trademark clear close-ups of characters against unfocused backgrounds giving the actors and actresses (much like Colin Firth and co. before) prominence. The locations in Denmark are excellently shot as well by cinematographer Danny Cohen, with a real attention to the period and the brisk, misty weather in northern mainland Europe, and a pastel-like colour gives interesting light and shade to sets that feel lived in and real. Alexander Desplat’s soft, unintrusive soundtrack is forgettable but a nice accompaniment, which I guess – in such dramas as these – is better so as to not overpower the characters.

It should probably be mentioned that the script has taken a lot of liberties adapting the story of Lili, as has screenwriter Lucinda Coxon. It didn’t affect my opinion of the film to find that out, but for some people that’s an issue, so there you go. At the end of the day, Einar/Lili was a real person who went through a real struggle, as did Gerda, and such a transgressive move at such a time in human history is a story worth telling. Fortunately, thanks to Redmayne, Vikander and director Hooper, The Danish Girl does her story credit.

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