Tom Hooper and Eddie Redmayne are sitting in a London office. On the T.V Screen in the corner, the incredible Ted Levine playing Buffalo Bill in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is dancing in a kimono to ‘Goodbye Horses,’ when Tom proclaims;
“Ed, we’re taking BACK the “Man-gina.”
a) Yes that was juvenile
b) I am juvenile
c) None of that happened
d) Hopefully that allows you one laugh about a film that is ultimately moving, harrowing and prescient…
The Danish Girl is about being compelled to a state of metamorphosis, but it’s also about tolerance and understanding so significant that it shields you from the extremes of physical and mental trauma. Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) are the artistic power couple in 1926 Copenhagen. Out of desperation for some inspiration, Gerda convinces Einar to model as a woman for a portrait and thus a transgender heroine Lili Elbe is born. As this new life force ensnares Einar, Gerda and Lili must battle against the time’s hostility to ‘difference’.
Tom Hooper is a filmmaker who crafts sets like stages. Frequency of use absolutely increases the quality of the environments but it’s not a lavish dressing – it feels as if they’re spaces largely to be projected upon by the performers. The speech therapist’s office in The King’s Speech, the church for Jean’s post freedom proclamation song in Les Miserables, and now the theatre and apartment sets in The Danish Girl all have the feel of an UFC octagon for the actors, who bounce off of the spaces to enhance their performance dynamism.
Redmayne is so profoundly versed in crafting waves of emotion through his expressions – every agonising thought, every devastating realisation ripple in his cheeks, shudder though his lips and glint in his eyes. Hooper loves to get his camera into his characters’ confidential moments. As Lili, especially early on interacting with Ben Whishaw’s Henrick, you can almost feel him bursting out of himself, struggling to contain an assault of emotions bombarding him as he’s responding to Henrick’s forceful touch and forward attempts for affection.
Vikander’s Gerda is a tragic figure. She has to wrestle with the stakes of the transition in this time in the most calculating and pragmatic way. Lili is perceived as a manifestation of psychosis for Einar, something to be treated with lobotomy or prolonged imprisonment and observation. Vikander’s Gerda stands out as she’s forced to surrender her visions of life and happiness for Lili’s emergence. Gerda has to protect Lili as she emerges; suppressing her desires, experiencing desexualisation and ultimately accepting her new role in an evolving platonic love with Lili. Vikander portrays watching Einar’s progress to Lili is heartbreaking as filled with torment. Vikander also does a wonderful job across from Matthias Schoenaerts’ art dealer Hans Axgil, a school boy friend of Einar’s who kissed him in their youth and made an impression. When Gerda fails to retrieve Einar from Lili with Hans, she must face that she and Hans are conducting electricity. Schoenaerts’ strapping looks and Vikander’s surpassed sexuality make for several agonising scenes together. Garda must have restraint for desire, to hold Lili’s hand.
The biggest problem with The Danish Girl is the timeline of the film. Screenwriter Lucinda Coxon (who adapted David Ebershoff’s book) transitions Redmayne’s Einar to Lili in such jarring fashion. From one pivotal scene where Gerda (Vikander) requests Einar to pose in leggings for a late arriving Ulla (Amber Heard), to then dressing as a woman as a goof to attend a party as ‘Lili’, and before you know it he’s lost touch with the masculine personality of Einar almost completely. In the beginning of the film, other than the fact that Redmayne has a delicate androgynous beauty and affinity with art, he appears to hold a steady footing on who he is. Hooper places Vikander’s breathtaking form in front of Einar (Redmayne), and the audience is faced with such feminine sexuality that you think is going to intimidate Einar, but they’re comparable and beautifully sensual. So when ultimately the film puts that eclipse between characters it’s like you’re watching it in time-lapse.
The Danish Girl underscores that in about 90 years, society collectively remains in a state of arrested development with transgender issues. Vikander is excellent, Redmayne is tremendous and Hooper does a great job harnessing the performers to get to the emotional truth of the story.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: Lucinda Coxon (based on the book by David Ebershoff)
Alicia Vikander – Gerda Wegener
Eddie Redmayne – Einar Wegener / Lili Elbe
Amber Heard – Ulla
Ben Whishaw – Henrick
Matthias Schoenaerts – Hans Axgil
Sebastian Koch – Warnekros