In The Danish Girl, Alicia Vikander reminds us she’s great in everything, while Eddie Redmayne reminds us he’s just in everything.
They’re subjected to the panoramic, fish-eyed lens of director Tom Hooper for this retelling of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe’s life.
Adapted by Lucinda Coxon from the novel by David Ebershoff, itself inspired by Elbe’s diaries, the film is maybe the most mainstream treatment of the transgender experience to date. It’s a compassionate endeavour that will hopefully inch us closer towards equality. However, note the ‘mainstream’ qualification in that compliment. The edges of Elbe’s tale have been softened; a creative move that might not endear the picture to the wider trans community seeking an unvarnished screen hero to call their own.
It begins with an introduction to Einar and Gerda Wegener (Redmayne and Vikander, respectively), married artists who mingle and flirt with Copenhagen’s rich and famous near the start of the 20th century.
Though Einar has earned his stripes in the artistic community, Gerda’s still seeking hers. It’s only when she begins sketching portraits of Einar, dressed as a woman, that their colleagues take note of her talent. This is how the world meets Lili, Einar’s supposed cousin: at social events and through Gerda’s erotic illustrations. But what Gerda merely believes to be a private joke is so much more for her husband, who reveals it was Lili she’s been married to all these years. Turns out Einar is the fabrication.
So begins a decades-long struggle for Lili to make public her gender expression, culminating with a tempting, albeit then-unheard of proposal from German gynecologist Professor Warnekros (Sebastian Koch): would she be interested in undertaking the world’s first sex reassignment surgery?
Redmayne, his generation’s twitchiest actor and an Oscar winner for portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, is an undeniably talented mimic. He should find much success as the second half of a Marx Brothers mirror act. Once more though, his thunder is thieved by the co-star playing his beleaguered wife.
Vikander gives a thoroughly spiky and simultaneously sensitive performance as Gerda, played with a slightly modern sensibility, befitting the first documented woman to encourage her husband’s male to female transition. She’s funny and fiery; her volcanic heartbreak over their fractured marriage stirring beneath the surface. Redmayne, perhaps burdened by screenwriter Coxon and coaxed by Hooper, is allowed no such understatement and instead is constantly wincing or audibly gasping. Lili’s scenes end in a fit of expulsion; either she bolts from the room in a frenzy, faints, or projects a geyser of blood from her nose. This is how the creatives behind The Danish Girl have chosen to dramatise Lili’s internal battle.
Collaborating with his regular cinematographer, Danny Cohen, Hooper uses many of the same tricks that made both The King’s Speech and Les Misérables so visually distinctive; canted angles, pulled focus and extreme close-ups that amount to a sort-of fun-house mirror effect. Isn’t it somewhat misguided, however, in a flick all about gender identity, to make the universe Lili inhabits appear so grotesque?
The crafts on display in the feature – from the lush costumes to the period-specific detail of the sets – are gorgeous, and the equally photogenic Vikander and Redmayne were seemingly engineered in anticipation of cameras being pointed at them. Hooper can make a movie, no doubt; the question lingers, at the end of The Danish Girl, if this is the right movie.
It can be proud of at least one achievement: for non-transgender people (aka, cisgender), The Danish Girl could be instrumental in putting a face to the transgender movement and helping make relatable and familiar a still-marginalised community.
At the 2006 Oscars, George Clooney suggested cinema was forever at the forefront of the great civil rights movements, which is true to a degree. What he neglected to mention was that mainstream movie-makers are usually only dipping one toe in at a time (and often to make up for the industry’s mistakes of the past).
To that point, The Danish Girl isn’t revolutionary, but it is an evolution. Let’s hope Hollywood treats it like a step on the path towards better trans storytelling, rather than the destination.