This is another toughie to review. Unlike a spunky action where we can all make fun of the dorky villain together, discussing the pros and cons of a transgender operation in the 1920s gets a bit… rockier. It’s important to keep in mind that, in the end, making oneself happy should be the ultimate objective. This, and the lengths one will go to to achieve that self-respect, are exactly the point of The Danish Girl.
Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is a talented painter from Copenhagen who has found artistic success among the public and personal happiness in a spacious apartment with his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander). Together they are a vivacious, social, creative couple who (aside from a secret love of fabrics) blends seamlessly into society. Things begin to change, however, when Gerda convinces Einar to liven up the annual artists’ ball by appearing as a woman. To prepare for the evening, Einar studies feminine mannerisms, dons a few silk stockings, and adopts a shy personality to compensate for his less than curvaceous build. Gerda and Einar name his alter ego Lili, and she becomes a muse for Gerda’s struggling art business. The artists’ ball, it turns out, is much more than a good laugh between the couple; it quickly becomes a moment of epiphany. It opens a window to femininity for Einar who discovers not a feeling of awkwardness, but a sense of liberation and comfort. As Lili blooms, however, Einar – and Gerda’s husband – becomes lost in the transformation.
Everyone involved in The Danish Girl was awarded the role of a lifetime. I doubt that many could have approached the duality of Einar and Lili with such a delicate, sensitive hand as Eddie Redmayne. He sinks into the character like a repotted plant; the bulb that is Einar (a natural, pleasant, unassuming bulb) transitions awkwardly between roots and stem before finally embracing the flower. The transition isn’t easy to undergo, nor is it necessarily easy to empathize with. Lily and Einar begin as two completely different characters – prompting several physicians to chase Einar out of their offices with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and a gang of straight jacket-wielding nurses. As The Danish Girl progresses, however, Lili begins to appear in Einar’s movements and mannerisms until there is nothing of Einar left. The transition is so subtle there is no one moment that defines the change. If you had to pick something, I would start by studying her hands.
Subtleties in movement and colour are a prominent theme in The Danish Girl, which is to be expected from a film so focused on art. The cinematography is drawn to water and colour, framing scenes to look like moving portraits. Throughout the entire film I could smell the paint in the room – a telltale sign of great cinematography and excellent set design.
As smooth as The Danish Girl may be, I’m still on edge about one thing; it’s an uncomfortable feeling that the title should have been The Danish Girls. It’s blatantly obvious who we would name the protagonist and who’s going through the most public metamorphosis… but what about Gerda? Alicia Vikander is ten levels of awesome in this film, pulling spunk out of a mouldy handbag like Mary Poppins on a Monday. It was obvious to me who the protagonist is – that is, until Einar’s old friend, Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), calls Gerda, “a Danish girl”. Gerda stands by Lili when the world refuses to accept her. However, her only recompense is a new girlfriend who ignorantly refuses to see that she’s left Gerda as an unofficial widow. Lili is never cruel or heartless – she loves Gerda just as Gerda loves her – but I find that so much focus on Lili’s transition leaves Gerda just outside the party doors.
The Danish Girl is a beautifully filmed and costumed movie, but with a difficult subject to tackle. Even so, it manages with eloquence and clarity. It does not wave the flag at the transgendered parade, but rather looks at the spirit, the body, and the wish to personally acknowledge one’s self as whole. The Danish Girl excels in acting, script, music, and set design, but it’s almost like the story tries to put too much life onto too small a stage. The Danish Girl is a 7/10.