“The Danish Girl” Movie Review


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     Like David O. Russell, director Tom Hooper has also been on an awards season hot streak, delivering the 2010 Best Picture winning film “The King’s Speech”, which also garnered him the Oscar for Best Director, and the 2012 Best Picture nominated “Les Miserables”, where he directed Anne Hathaway to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar win.  Hooper’s latest offering, “The Danish Girl”, reunites him with  “Les Miserables” star Eddie Redmayne, who is also on his own hot steak, coming off a win for Best Actor for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in 2014’s “The Theory of Everything.”  And where there were obvious challenges in bringing Hawking to life on screen, the complicated and delicate nature of Redmayne’s performance as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe stretches his range of acting talents to dizzying heights, as he must convince the audience as a male character he is actually a woman inside.

     Based on David Ebershoff’s novel and adapted by Lucinda Coxon, “The Danish Girl” weaves the kind of modern day tale you wouldn’t expect to take place nearly 100 years ago in 1926 Copenhagen.  Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is a successful local artist who lives with his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), in the Danish capital, making their living creating and selling paintings of sprawling landscapes and lifelike portraits.  Einar is the more established of the two, having had his work exhibited within major European galleries, while Gerda has struggled with her penchant for portrait work, which is looked upon by those controlling the scene as being subpar when compared to the kind of work her husband is producing.  Like any young married couple, Einar and Gerda squabble from time to time, mostly about Einar’s attempts to use his influence to help Gerda’s career.  They also long for a child and seem to have a special bond between them that would indicate their marriage is an inseparable one.  As Gerda says early on, “When I kiss him, I feel as though I am kissing myself.”

     That statement would turn out to be a premonition, when a game of cosplay begins to trigger something within Einar he may not have altogether realized before.  Gerda asks Einar to take over modeling duties for a portrait of a woman she is nearing completion on.  This entails Einar, who is hesitant at first, putting on stockings, women’s shoes, and holding a dress over his body as he sits on a chair.  The two have so much fun doing this that they invent Lili, a sort of cosplay alter ego for Einar in which he wears a wig, makeup, and a complete female ensemble as they go out in public and pretend as though Gerda is with Einar’s cousin.  It’s all laughing and giggling on Gerda’s part, but Hooper explicitly moves his camera close to Einar in the moments he first feels these clothes on his skin, as we see very subtle, yet overt reactions that would indicate Einar is somehow aroused.  The couple would take this a step further by attending a prestigious bow tie event as Gerda and Lili, with Gerda still seemingly unaware how serious her husband is taking his night out in drag.  

     Now here’s the problem with the next scene.  Einar, as Lili, finds himself being courted by other men in the room with one of those men going as far as trying to kiss him.  As dramatized in the scene, there is no way one could convince me another man would find Eddie Redmayne attractive in women’s clothes and makeup, must less be fooled into thinking he is a woman.  Redmayne, who skirted the lines of ultra creepiness in the Wachowski Sibling’s “Jupiter Ascending”, isn’t convincing enough in appearance to the point where the numerous people in the room who know him as Einar would think he was actually someone else.  He simply looks like Einar with a wig and lipstick, which proves to be a disturbing sight at times for those who even today are unaccepting of those in the transgender population.  But perhaps, as it is implied, the man who kisses Einar/Lili is himself a homosexual and knew all along it was Einar dressed as a woman.  Either way, Gerda, who catches the two men together, no longer sees the situation as a game and begins to realize her husband has a serious problem.

     The issue most glaring in “The Danish Girl” is the method of which the story is told.  Certainly, someone, who is portrayed as being at least in their mid to late 20s, that is having the kind of feelings which indicate to them they are a woman inside of a man’s body, would have had these thoughts long before the events depicted in the film.  And while we do get a story about Einar and his best friend, Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), who may have flirted with one another when they were kids, there is nothing else to indicate Einar knew of this until the moment Gerda asked him to wear women’s clothes as the subject of her painting.  As a result, we are left to wonder if the landmark moments of the first person to undergo a transgender operation are the whisper like quivering responses of delight Einar feels each time he touches women’s clothing and makeup.  There is plenty of this throughout the second act, which is intercut with a number of situations where Einar visits various psychologists who all determine he is insane.  That conclusion always seems plausible since Einar continually refers to Lili as another person entirely, leaving those examining him to believe he may be suffering from a multiple personality disorder.  Even the third act seems oddly by the numbers as Einar begins to abandon his identity as a man and lives as Lili full time while pursuing the possibility of gender reassignment surgery.

     Hooper’s film, as expected, is gorgeously shot with an eye for even the subtlest of details which is hugely important for a period film like this.  The production design, especially Einar and Gerda’s flat and the Copenhagen exteriors explored throughout much of the story, is outstanding with the costume design equally as eye catching as it gives each character a very unique look, which proves crucial during the male to female transformations.  For his part, Redmayne is very good in what proves to be an extremely difficult and emotional role to undertake.  But the real star of the film is Alicia Vikander who delivers one of the best performances of the year.  Vikander arrived in the minds of independent film audiences with her acclaimed role in “Ex Machina” and followed that with two lesser roles in the studio films “Burnt” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”.  As Gerda, her ability to steal a scene, even from an actor the caliber of Redmayne, is there for all to see as her portrayal of a woman who deals with her husband’s sexual identity crisis is both heartfelt and emotionally invigorating.  And as complex a journey as Einar/Lili takes in the film, Gerda’s is every bit as important, functioning as a rock solid base of support for both her husband and the woman he longs to become.  The narrative may well have been served better if the first hour explored Einar’s early years, perhaps even going back to his childhood, but overall, one can’t deny the power of the story and its importance in the transgender movement of today.  GRADE: B