One of the most darling moments at last year’s Academy Awards occurred when Eddie Redmayne very publicly dorked out in his acceptance speech for the Best Actor award; it was genuine, fanboy, surreal and loving all at once, but also a triumphant moment for what felt like an overnight anointed star (in actuality, Redmayne has been acting for over a decade.)
A strikingly physical and evocative performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and the accompanying accolades Redmayne received quickly begged the question, “What next?” Well, eventually, the lead role in the Harry Potter spin-off series Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but as of right now, The Danish Girl, which has already garnered Redmayne a SAG and Golden Globe nomination.
Redmayne’s role in The Danish Girl similarly demands a humanistic approach; in this film, he plays Lilli Elbe, one of the first transgender women to undergo sexual reassignment surgery in the early 1900s. Born as famed painter Einer Wegener and married to illustrator Gerda Gottlieb, Lilli began to pose for her wife’s paintings dressed in women’s clothing and occasionally appeared in public as “Lilli”, before realizing the extent to which she wanted to make her transition. The Danish Girl follows Lilli’s journey alongside Gerda (Alicia Vikander, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Ex-Machina) to find and live as her authentic self.
The Danish Girl is indeed a very beautifully-made film. Director Tom Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen, who both previously collaborated on The King’s Speech and Les Misérables, created a vivid visual story that imitates its subjects with a painting-like quality, fine in its details and gorgeous in landscapes. The delicacy extends to Redmayne’s performance as well, who breathes life into Lilli’s story with a sense of femininity and sensitivity in such a way that his work is once more a standout amongst this year’s award-vying films. As to whether it will triumphantly outshine others, that’s a toss-up in a very crowded year of performances; but it is noteworthy.
Although this film works as an entry point into the conversation surrounding the LGBTQ community, as Lilli and Gerda’s story unfolds, you realize very quickly that Redmayne salvages whatever he can from a fairly surface-level exploration of the trans experience. It is surprising that The Danish Girl does not offer more given how loosely the film adapted the story from a novel of the same name and from the actual historical details of Lilli and Gerda’s relationship; if liberties were to be taken with the original story, it feels like The Danish Girl could have found more poignancy in its depth of storytelling.
The Danish Girl often sways towards Gerda and Lilli’s relationship, their ability to navigate Lilli’s transition and Gerda’s own journey into acceptance and support, which is highlighted beautifully by Alicia Vikander. Like Redmayne’s performance in Theory, Vikander will soon become the household name she deserves to be as a result of her work in The Danish Girl; in fact, she’s one of the primary reasons that makes this movie work, and why you should go see it. She delivers that aspect of the story with such a balanced sense of strength and vulnerability that convincingly represents the deep love and respect that Lilli and Gerda had for one another, which eventually becomes the persisting message of the film. Even though I’m not satisfied with the reach of its storytelling, I am definitely on board with that conclusion.
I screened The Danish Girl at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It is now out in theatres across Canada.