The Danish Girl *****
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Shoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard Director: Tom Hooper
The biopic of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery, has been a long time in the making. With Nicole Kidman originally attached to the project, the starring role was eventually taken up by current critical darling Redmayne, hot off the heels of his Oscar glory. But with one of the huskiest voices in Hollywood, this long-anticipated film has been awaited with baited breath as transgenderism gets the Hollywood treatment. And the result is an absolute triumph. Growing up as Einar, Lili (Redmayne) is a successful painter in Copenhagen. His wife Gerta (Vikander) is also a painter, but unable to emulate the same kind of success as her husband. But as Einar starts to experiment wearing her clothes, she sees an opportunity to paint a truly original subject. Initially encouraging him to assume his new identity, it isn’t long before she questions her husband’s intentions as Lili appears more and more frequently, both to herself and eventually to others. Before long, Gerta has to decide whether she will support Lili through her transition, or reject this change entirely.
Vikander is perfectly cast as the beating heart of the film. While Redmayne’s depiction of the shy and delicate Lili is a technical masterpiece of acting, it’s through Gerta that the audience finds its viewpoint. Gerta is empathetic, liberal and confident, but her battle over whether to support her husband's transition is what gives the film its central conflict. This is not a film that asks you whether you agree with transgenderism, but instead poses the question of how you'd respond to the person you love doing it. Especially as Lili's sexual orientation is also unclear too. The film is resplendent in its depiction of various European citties in the 1920s. Copenhagen, Paris and Dresden are luscious on screen, painting a glorious backdrop on which this period drama with wholly modern themes is played. Hooper's direction is strong, with clear consistency in steering the film toward its message of love overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. With a colour palate as bold as its painter subjects' work, The Danish Girl is a visual film, with due care paid to its aesthetic. However, this poses the film's only sticking point: much emphasis is laden on how pretty Lili is as a girl... but would her transition have been less acceptable if she wasn't? This question goes unanswered.
Redmayne does make a very pretty girl however. As Lili studies and mimics the femininity of those around her, Redmayne spends much time staring doe-ishly in wistful lingering shots that truly glorify the skill of both his acting and the film's costumes and makeup. From Lili's first awkward emergence, right through to her later confidence, Redmayne takes us paints her as wholly empathetic as she slowly blossoms. But as we view her through Gerta's eyes, we see so much more than just a story of finding oneself. The question over her eventual intention sometimes ladens the film with uneasy foreboding, giving a dark edge to a piece so focused on beauty. And when the reality of such experimental surgery at the time does flash on screen, it's as unsettling as it is upsetting. After the quasi-misfire of Les Miserables, The Danish Girl sees Hooper return to the territory of which he is a master; sweeping period drama with fascinating subjects. While it lacks the focused narrative consistency of The King's Speech, there's no doubt that the film packs one almighty emotional punch that I defy anyone to be left cold by. Though Lili Elbe was essentially just an ordinary girl, she found herself caught in extraordinary social, political and historical circumstances far beyond her control. And while I watched this personal tale of an early gender pioneer (albeit through circumstance), I couldn't help but wonder about the people who had gone before her. While Lili was able to undergo gender reassignment, what are the stories of those who couldn't? How did transgender people live before there was even a glimmer of the possibility of surgery? While this is a triumphant beginning for transgenderism in mainstream Hollywood, those are the stories I would like to see on screen one day soon.
Available to download, stream or buy on DVD.