Director Tom Hooper Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander UK Release Date 1st January 2016
THE DANISH GIRL exceeded all my expectations. In fact it completely destroyed them. I expected a film about Lili Elbe: one of the first to undergo reconstructive genital surgery in Copenhagen in the early 1920s, transitioning from successful male (on the exterior) painter Einar Wegerner into her true internal identity, Lili.
But Tom Hooper’s lavish film is about friendship. I love films about friendship. They have been that bit less ‘done’ than films about romantic love, and feel more universal. In place of the spotlight I expected to see beaming at thespian royalty, fresh-off-the-Oscar-stage Eddie Redmayne was a gilt frame around him and co-star Alicia Vikander, who undeniably outshines him as Einar’s wife, and then Lili’s friend, Gerda.
The combination of surprise at not only how encapsulating Vikander is but how big a piece of the pie she is given by Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon, and elation at the complexity of the two protagonists’ relationship, resulted in a viewing experience that indeed exceeded all my expectations. Advertising has been problematic, for a film starring Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe was always going to result in surrounding film conversations focusing on how the British Oscar-winner pulls off wearing a wig rather than Lili Elbe – a suspiciously contrived decision. But Oscar-baiting aside, it is Gerda’s psychological transition and selflessness as she goes from enjoying a happy marriage to being a supportive friend that will really move the audience.
Both Gerda and a pre-publicly-Lili Einar are Danish artists, the latter a great deal more successful in society’s eyes. Gerda strives to capture the graceful essence of femininity which frustratingly evades her in her paintings. And then one moment spurns not only her professional inspiration but her husband’s personal: she asks her to pose with a stocking so she can finish detailing the foot of a ballerina. Publicly posing as a woman awakens a dormant Lili and catalyses her journey into becoming the picture of feminine beauty, and inversely painting it where Gerda is concerned.
In this way the two leads are connected by the same goal to transcend the standards they have been defined by, and their mutual support is a sweet thing to watch. However it just so happens that Vikander’s portrayal of Gerda’s journey is so much more captivating. For – brace for shock – Redmayne is not a trans person, and the film has garnered quite a bit of criticism for him (yet again – see THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) playing a marginalised person and attracting Academy attention. As has been alluded to by critics, the coy smiles he employed in his last big role are overplayed to the max here and somewhat divert attention from his character’s true emotions onto Vikander’s. Gerda’s bisexual status IRL is omitted from the film, too, as it was from the book of the same name on which the film is based. What does this culminate in? At its worst, a high-profile film that once again sidelines its supposedly central issue.
So THE DANISH GIRL succeeds in capturing beauty – in the scenery, in the music, in the movement of its protagonists and the stroke of their brushes – without giving Lili the agency we expected. But whereas many will justifiably see this as an unforgiveable missing of the point, it argues that gender in general, from whichever angle you choose to approach it, is just one big construction. It is beautifully, movingly articulated, but in making its point it leaves us with a somewhat artificial view of humanity. Maybe not the best outcome for the first likely awards contender about a trans person.