With an attention-grabbing lead performance, its topical issue subject matter (even EastEnders are at it) and The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper at the helm, The Danish Girl is the very definition of Oscar bait, while Britain’s own Eddie Redmayne could well see himself netting two Best Actor Oscars in a row with his performance as transgender pioneer Lili Erbe.
Based the book by David Ebershoff, the film begins in 1926 Copenhagen where happily married Einar (Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) are both pursuing careers as painters, albeit with varying degrees of success. One day, Gerda’s model-slash-dancer friend Ulla (Amber Heard) is late for a sitting, so Gerda playfully asks her husband to don silk stockings and ballet slippers, whereupon something long-suppressed awakens in Einar and “Lili” is born.
Initially, Gerda encourages Einar, persuading him to attend a society party in drag, a decision she quickly regrets when she catches Lili being kissed by an apparently unsuspecting male suitor (Ben Whishaw as Henrik). However, as Einar realises that Lili is his true self, Gerda is forced to come to terms with the resulting loss of the man she knew, eventually standing by Lili’s side as she seeks pioneering gender reassignment surgery.
Reuniting with Les Miserables director Hooper, Redmayne delivers an extremely accomplished, achingly sympathetic performance that is often heart-breaking to watch. In doing so, he affects a physical transformation that is every bit as impressive as his Oscar-winning turn as Stephen Hawking, expertly capturing every stage of Lili’s emergence, with telling details supplied by Lucinda Coxon’s script, such as Einar visiting a Parisian peep show to privately study female body language.
Commendably, the film isn’t just about Einar’s story, with Gerda reduced to the role of blandly supportive spouse; instead, as a line in the script makes clear, the story is as much about Vikander’s “Danish girl” as Redmayne’s. Accordingly, she delivers a compellingly compassionate performance and the script ensures that the audience’s sympathies are equally torn between both characters – this is particularly notable in the scene where Einar announces his intention to live as Lili permanently, something that’s presented almost as an act of cruelty, such is its devastating effect on her.
With two such stand-out lead performances, it’s hard for anyone else to get much of a look-in, but Heard is enjoyably frivolous as Ulla (who gives Lili her name) and there’s strong work from Matthias Schoenaerts (as Einar’s childhood friend Hans), who has one of the film’s best lines, to Lili: “I’ve only really liked a handful of people in my life, and you’ve been two of them.”
The film looks exquisite throughout, courtesy of Danny Cohen’s appropriately painterly cinematography (the colours becoming more vivid as Lili emerges) and Paco Delgado’s sumptuous costumes. It also has to be said that Redmayne makes a highly convincing lady, thanks, in part to an exceptional job by the film’s make-up team.
Indeed, if there’s a problem with the film, it’s only a vague feeling that some of the story’s more grisly details (the operation, for example) have been sanitised in the name of chocolate box-style entertainment – see also, not uncoincidentally, The King’s Speech.
In short, this is an emotionally engaging, sensitively written period drama with a pair of awards-worthy performances from Redmayne and Vikander.