The Danish Girl Review
Eddie Redmayne has a good chance of repeating his success in The Theory of Everything at last year's Academy Awards, thanks to his superb work in director Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, based on David Ebershoff’s novel (adapted by Lucinda Coxon). And it would be deservedly so.
Redmayne plays Einar Wegener, a successful painter, happily married to Gerda. A silly game awakens in Einar a long-denied desire to become a woman. He becomes one of the first people to be given gender reassignment surgery. But possibly more importantly, the story focuses on the hard truths Einar and Gerda must accept as their marriage faces an uncertain future.
The film has been criticised by some for being inaccurate. Maybe it is and maybe it isn't, it's hard to judge unless you know the story or understand its motive. But just as Jaws isn't actually about a shark, so The Danish Girl isn't just about transgender issues.
As with The Theory of Everything, both films are about marriage as much as anything else. About a marriage facing seemingly insurmountable odds when the husband is afflicted by life-altering and threatening conditions. Both also feature incredible support by Redmayne’s co-star; in this case Alicia Vikander as Gerda. She is stunning. Vikander ensures that it never feels like Redmayne is carrying the film alone, just as Gerda never lets Einar down.
But where The Theory of Everything was ultimately a broadly and briskly uplifting story of overcoming adversity, The Danish Girl is almost painfully intimate and sad. Yet rich and captivating too. In his interviews, Redmayne keeps using the word “beautiful” to describe the story, and it is.
Hooper's film all too easily evokes a time not so long ago as he did in Les Miserables. A time when such thoughts of possibly having been born in the wrong body were considered insane. Perhaps the criticism is fair and the film doesn't handle this well, but see it as less a documentary and more of a drama and a universal truth comes through. Hooper makes it about the individual again, not the subject, just as he had Colin Firth facing up to a life alone, because of or in spite of his homosexuality in A Single Man.
Redmayne’s emotional and brittle performance is absolutely convincing. At first daring to enjoy wearing his wife's clothes (Einar and Gerda even exploit it as a sexual fetish), then giving in to Lili, almost in secret. And finally, the horrible, desperate yearning to escape Einar, to become Lili completely.
It is also a film about grief and an excellent one at that. Transitioning into Lili means Einar will no longer exist. Watching Gerda try to support and accept that she has to surrender her beloved husband is heartbreaking. Cleverly it is underlined by their shared love of painting; Einar paints landscapes from memory, while she creates portraits from live models (she is guilty of giving Lili a life through those images). But as for Lili? She doesn't paint at all and has no compulsion to share Einar’s artistic nature which is tough for Gerda to see. Such a simple and effective plot device. After all, losing a loved one is painful for watching who they were and what they did become a memory.
Tom Hooper brought similar emotional power to A Single Man, for which Colin Firth should have had an Academy Award. But at least the balance was redressed in The King’s Speech, the director's next film. Hooper’s fashion background shows in all three, all having a similar aesthetic; gorgeous, muted cinematography (by Hooper regular Danny Cohen) and set design, coupled with an almost claustrophobic focus on the actors.
Actually it's unfortunate that we should discuss films like these in terms of Awards. It lends weight to the cynical argument that they are merely Oscar-bait. While it's true these glossy films with worthy roles are released at this time of year “for your consideration”, they do have an audience anyway. Arguably the Academy -always known for shunning genre pictures- was formed around their existence, not the other way around. What's important is that Hooper's films capture a powerful, almost casually and obviously tabloid conceit, and he makes it human.
In The Danish Girl Lili's story is made relevant and emotional. And despite being a period piece, people might find solace from Lili’s battle to accept who she is. Or in Gerda’s bravery to let her.