The Danish Girl is set in 1926 Copenhagen but in its own way feels relevant to conversations that are being had today. It seems like you can’t look anywhere without Caitlyn Jenner’s name on it and her transition has been thoroughly documented. Amazon’s Transparent continues to be a celebrated series. A little independent film called Tangerine – which I put on my list as one of the year’s best films – featured two first-time transgendered actresses.
But what does any of this have to do with a 1920s period piece? The Danish Girl chronicles the life of Einar Wegener, who was the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery. The film, while fictionalized, fits comfortably into the mainstream conversation that is being had in the media regarding trans issues and representation.
Furthermore, The Danish Girl can be seen during a whole different conversation that is being had now – the Oscar conversation. It seems like one film a year gets pegged as the one with “For Your Consideration” stamped across it and this particular film might be it. This is a solid, if safe, account of a particular trailblazer, featuring a real-life, hotly discussed topic in a glossy, picturesque fashion. At times, its gorgeous storybook-like setting takes away from the importance at hand.
Coming from director Tom Hooper, this is to be expected. Hooper won the Oscar for directing The King’s Speech (a movie that’s fine but not particularly memorable. Hooper’s and the film’s win still stings from beating The Social Network). He has a way of approaching these historical pictures without much subtly, holding shots a bit too long to make a point. Everything always looks so neat and tidy in his historical films, which takes some edge away from the narrative. (On the flip side, Hooper also directed the dour and passionless “Les Miserables.”)
Last year’s Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne stars as Einar. He is a well-known painter, often being courted for his works. His wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), is also a painter but mostly hides in the shadow of her husband. One day, Gerda is need of someone to sit in for her to finish a painting of a woman. She asks Einar to put the shoes and stockings on and just hold up the dress while she puts the finishing touches on her portrait.
Something clicks in this moment for Einar, as if he had found what he had always been looking for but didn’t know it. The dress against his skin all of a sudden feels right. While this is a confusing, if small step forward in his awakening, Hooper holds the shot for too long as Einar examines himself. It’s a bit on-the-nose that the minute the dress is held up to him, he finds his new identity.
Einar and Gerda go to a party but Einar dresses up like a woman and who he calls Lili. Quickly, Lili becomes less of an alter ego and a completely different person. He can’t stop brining Lili out and wants to continue exploring life as this new woman. It’s a challenging time for Einar and Gerda. In one of the film’s best scenes, Gerda tells Einar, “We were playing a game!” Einar isn’t playing.
If you caught last year’s The Theory of Everything, you know that Redmayne is an actor who can transform himself and inhabit a character. He is no less convincing and astonishing in The Danish Girl and will certainly earn a deserved consecutive Oscar nomination. It must be daunting going from one prominent figure to the next but like any great actor, Redmayne sheds one skin to take on another.
As good as Redmayne is, this year’s breakout star, Vikander, captivates. She is forced to navigate Einar’s new life as Lili along with her own new life without her husband. She walks the line of supportive and heartbroken, saying hello to a new friend, while saying goodbye to her husband. Vikander accomplishes a wonderful balancing act.
There’s a lot to appreciate about The Danish Girl but I would have liked to have seen a more passionate director take the helm. Hooper’s directorial stylings have held movies back before and I can’t help but to think the same happens here. But for a pair of knockout performances, I would tell anyone to give this movie a chance.
The Danish Girl rates 7 out of 10