DIR: Tom Hooper • WRI: Lucinda Coxon • PRO: Eric Fellner, Nina Gold, Anne Harrison, Tom Hooper, Gail Mutrux • DOP: Danny Cohen • ED: Melanie Oliver • DES: Eve Stewart • MUS: Alexandre Desplat • CAST: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard
You would have to wonder. In a world where transgenderism was unheard of or treated as a form of mental illness if heard of at all, what was going through the mind of the first person to attempt a sex-change operation? What drives them to take that chance in a world that refuses to understand? The Danish Girl explores that struggle as experienced by Einar Wegener, one of the first men to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
While depicting historical people, this film is adapted from the David Ebershoff novel of the same name by playwright Lucinda Coxon. Conveying the inner struggles of a transgendered person is something Ebershoff’s prose explores eloquently but it’s more challenging for the medium of film to express such feelings without demonstrating them through characters’ interactions. Fortunately for us all, the casting in this movie is solid and provides actors who deliver the emotional punch this story needs.
Although there are valid concerns about casting cis-gendered actors in trans roles, it is fortunate on balance that Eddie Redmayne was cast, having previously demonstrated in The Theory of Everything that he commands on-screen presence while undergoing amazing physical transformation. Another Oscar for him this year is very likely because he once again embodies the compassionate humanity of a crucial figure in world history.
It’s unfortunate that some of the early scenes are staged and framed in a peculiar way as certain facial expressions of his could be viewed with a certain sense of unease. The low angles and chiaroscuro lighting of Redmayne in early scenes do not convey the delicate soul we come to know; it almost seems like some perplexing form of needless misdirection. He becomes far more sympathetic later in the film when his fragilities are laid bare and moments of warm-hearted banter round out this on-screen character as they begin their experimentations with gender.
Another parallel to last year’s The Theory of Everything is that Redmayne’s character is supported by a strong woman (is even an actor of his calibre getting typecast?). In this case Alicia Vikander, having already given mesmerising turns this year in Ex Machina and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., outdoes herself for a career-best performance as Gerda Wegener, the wife of Einar. This movie could have focused solely on Einar/Lili and her journey but that would have been at the expense of Gerda’s own moving story. It is not just Redmayne’s performance that elevates this movie but Vikander’s also for the weight she brings to Gerda’s inner conflict; loving her husband but wanting him to remain her husband.
This movie is pervaded with a tenderness that makes the couple’s emotions relatable even when they contradict the other’s desires. Every character’s viewpoint is understandable. The bigoted views of the period’s psychiatric world are made clear to be inhumane but caricature is avoided; the logic that could be expected of the time has to be presented to show the prejudice the Wegener’s endured. Gerda’s emotional need for the embrace of the man she married is in devastating contrast with Lili’s self-realisation yet neither is presented as selfish or wanting to deny the other person’s happiness. Lili’s own aching torment is laid bare in many scenes, particularly with a line that might be the most succinct and heart-rending explanation of transgenderism in cinema, when Lili says, “When I go to sleep, it’s not Einar’s dreams; it’s Lili’s dreams.”
The evolution of Lili’s self-discovery is followed from its burgeoning between a loving and sexually-experimental couple of painters in Copenhagen’s bohemian scene of the 1920s. Einar is a successful landscape painter while Gerda struggles to find a market for her portraits. As Gerda discovers her husband’s fondness for women’s clothing she gleefully schools him in the ways of femininity, even to the point of taking him to parties dressed as “Einar’s cousin from the countryside, Lili”. When Gerda starts painting portraits of Lili, she finds the subject that put her on the map as an artist. Things turn when Lili goes out by herself to date men and begins confiding stories to Gerda in which her childhood self is referred to as Lili. The prejudice they face intensifies, the brutality of which is portrayed unflinchingly in scenes that are hard-to-watch in the best possible way.
Towards the end it maintains the right balance between the tenderness of their romance and the crushing nature of their fears but finally succumbs to sentimental imagery in the film’s closing scene. It is unfortunate the contrivance of this last scene jars with the rest of the movie which had otherwise avoided schmaltz and packed a raw emotional gut-punch without it.
The Danish Girl remains an emotionally-gripping film and an impeccably-crafted one at that. The world of 1920s Europe is fittingly, a world in transition, established firmly with inspired locations and art-deco sets mixing well. Costumes capture the glamour of the period’s bohemian scene. Hair and make-up sell the striking gender transformation central to this movie. For a movie about painters, there are so many shots that have a painterly quality to them. Director of Photography Danny Cohen, of Shane Meadows’ This Is England and Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, can frame and light an actors’ face like no other cinematographer. Aside from aforementioned problems in early scenes, the power of the actor’s face dominates the frame even when the world around it is also impeccably shot. Director Tom Hooper had previously worked with Danny Cohen on The King’s Speech and Les Miserables and they continue this visual style they crafted on those films where the right actor’s face is often enough to tell the story.
The Danish Girl has produced two front-running contenders for performance of the year and has so many challenging moments your mind will be engaged and your heart will be broken. It is a beautifully-told celebration of love, tolerance and freedom of identity, themes so pertinent now for the cultural moment transgenderism is experiencing and for so many more reasons.
It may be ‘Oscarbait’ but it is quality filmmaking that has earned its recognition and deserves a wide audience.
119 minutes (See IFCO for details)
The Danish Girl is released 1st January 2016