The Danish Girl
Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl delivers a fictionalised story based on the real life Danish artists Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) surrounding Lili’s quest to change gender.
This particular story will rise or fall on the strength of the lead performances and this is a point where this film excels. Eddie Redmayne takes on the role of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe and really immerses himself into the character. There’s a great subtlety to his performance as he portrays someone getting to grips with their real identity. It’s not the story of a man becoming a woman, it’s a much more complex journey out of denial into self discovery that is handled with immense skill from Redmayne.
It’s remarkable how gradually the transition happens. It starts as a seemingly innocent experiment with cross dressing to spice up a marital relationship and evolves as Einar/Lili starts to realise what she really is. It is most effective when Redmayne first embodies the Lili persona without being made up to look like a woman. It is at that point it is made clear that this is a woman trapped in the wrong gender with Redmayne selling the idea perfectly.
Just as important is Alicia Vikander’s performance as it is her character who grounds the whole thing. Eddie Redmayne is the one in focus but Vikander has to be something of a constant. She plays Gerda with lots of playful energy as well as genuine love and affection for her husband. It’s interesting to see her transition from being the wife and partner to a supportive ally as he goes through his transition. The whole thing is clearly something she struggles with at first but her devotion to her former husband remains strong and Vikander covers the vast array of emotions perfectly. She could be seen as the real lead as her consistency throughout is what the viewer is expected to cling onto.
There are a number of supporting characters who fulfill a very specific function within the story. Ben Whishaw fully commits to a friend who boosts Lili’s confidence by showing sexual interest in her and Matthias Schoenaerts is believable as a man that both parties are interested in. These aren’t large roles but they are important in the evolving tapestry of these characters. It could be said that these actors are a little underused and I can see why people might think that but their performances fit the needs of the plot well without seeming forced.
The story is really well told with the characters evolving gradually over the running time of the film. Nothing ever feels rushed and it all looks really good as well. The 1920s are well represented from everything to set design to costuming and everything has a distinct artistic look to it which compliments the fact that the main characters are artists beautifully.
Transgenderism is a tough issue that should be handled with a large degree of sensitivity and finesse much like anything really. It is a deeply personal struggle that this film deals with pretty well for the most part. There are aspects of it that could have been handled better such as the prejudice Lili faces as she undergoes this difficult transition. The lack of acceptance is covered to some degree but it never quite becomes the barrier that it should. Some Doctors come across as disapproving but on the whole the only obstacles she faces are broadly personal ones. I would have liked to see the issue tackled with some real opposition.
A superbly acted story that tackles the very real issue of accepting transgenderism on a really personal level.
This particular story will rise or fall based on the lead performances and this film excels with those. Both Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander are excellent in their roles. Redmayne really immerses himself in the character and makes it believable that he is someone who is on a journey of self discovery that is immensely difficult.
The transition happens gradually and believably with the most effective moment being when Lili is first presented without the aid of Redmayne being made up to look like a woman. It’s a powerful showcase of who the real person is and how profoundly she has accepted the reality.
Alicia Vikander’s role is equally as important as she grounds the whole thing while still being fully realised herself. The transition from loving wife to supportive ally is organically done and Vikander injects a lot of humanity into the character.
Matthias Schoenaerts and Ben Whishaw embody supporting roles that might be seen as doing a disservice to these actors but they fill their role in the story well and compliment their part in the narrative without overpowering it.
The story is well told with the characters evolving gradually over the course of the film. It looks great with the 1920s well represented by sets and costuming as well as everything having a distinctly artistic look to compliment that the main characters are artists.
One thing that could have been improved is how transgenderism is dealt with throughout. I think the lack of acceptance angle could have been played up a lot more rather than largely confining it to some disapproving Doctors. Despite that this is a moving story brought to live by superb acting.