The Danish Girl arrives in cinemas with no shortage of baggage. Director Tom Hooper is hoping to replicate the back-to-back critical and commercial successes of The King’s Speech and Les Misérables.
Leads in the film will help with that: Eddie Redmayne is fresh from Best Actor wins at the Oscars, Golden Globes and BAFTAs for last year’s The Theory of Everything; while co-star Alicia Vikander is on the cusp of superstardom after finding success in Testament of Youth, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and indie-hit, Ex Machina.
Beyond all that there’s the subject matter. 2015 was undoubtedly the year that transgender rights became present in mainstream dialogues. Caitlyn Jenner and Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox have undoubtedly bolstered conversations surrounding issues, particularly the spectre of violence against trans people and women. Other Hollywood hopefuls have tackled the subject matter, most recently the little-loved About Ray and low-budget favourite Tangerine. But it’s The Danish Girl that represents the film industry’s high-profile foray into the topic since Boys Don’t Cry, with all the associated pressure you might expect.
David Ebershoff’s novel of the same name is the film’s source: a fictionalised account of the life of Lili Elbe (Redmayne), a Danish, transgender woman who was among the first to undergo sex reassignment surgery in the early 1930s. Lili, born Einar Wegener, had support throughout from her wife Gerda Gottlieb (Vikander), a fellow painter who frequently used Lili as a model for her portraits.
Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay is happy to fudge the facts for the sake of story, shifting around character dynamics to place the focus squarely on the impact Lili’s transition has on her relationship with Gerda. The shift brings Vikander’s performance to the fore, demonstrating considerable range as the sympathetic but struggling Gerda who’s torn between her support for Lili and her simple desire to have her husband back. Vikander brings every conflicting emotion to lip-trembling life – a constant, compelling reminder that the impact of Lili’s transition cannot be measured in her life alone.
Vikander’s towering performance arguably overshadows Redmayne, whose Lili is affecting but slightly one-note. Much as he did with motor-neurone disease in The Theory of Everything, the actor perfectly captures Lili’s developing physicality, mirroring the movements of the women around her as she comes to terms with her own femininity. It’s an admirable technical performance but at times restrained, rarely connecting on the same emotional level that Vikander strikes.
Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard and Matthia Schoenaerts form the under-used supporting cast, each who serve the plot more than character. Schoenaerts in particular is mostly passive as a Parisian art-dealer and childhood friend of Elbe who becomes a major presence in the film’s second half, but offers little narrative or emotional impact.
Undeniably handsome cinematography from Hooper’s regular collaborator Danny Cohen makes the most striking of landscapes: old-European architecture and simple tableaux to accentuate the film’s quiet beauty.
Some will no doubt find fault in the decision to place so much emphasis on Gerda’s story, at the expense of Lili’s own; a lesser performer than Vikander could have crippled the film. She elevates the work and makes The Danish Girl her own. It’s a performance that must be seen – even, if at times, it leaves the film around her feeling flat.
Words by Dominic Preston