The Danish Girl is the definition of an Oscar-bait film. It’s a period piece; it has controversial subject matter, which results in a brave and difficult performance from one or more of the actors; and it is based, in part at least, on a true story. The question is: is the film any good?
Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is a landscape artist in 1920s Denmark, living with his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who is a portrait artist. Einar has much success, while Gerda’s efforts go largely ignored by the art snobs of the day. However, that changes when Gerda is trying to finish a female portrait. The model is unavailable and Gerda asks Einar to sit in the model’s place. Posing as a woman triggers a long-hidden part of Einar and he begins cross-dressing. Gerda encourages this exploration, treating it like a game. Einar adopts the name Lili Elbe, telling people she meets that she’s Einar’s cousin. Gerda then begins painting portraits of Lili and gaining some prominence herself. However, as time goes on, Einar begins to realize that he’s not a man at all, but a woman trapped in a male body. Any doctor he consults automatically assumes that Einar is insane and living as a man tortures him as he comes to the only logical conclusion: Lili is his true self. Lili and Gerda relocate to Paris so that Gerda can expand her success as an artist. While there, she meets an art dealer, Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts). There is a mutual attraction between them, but Gerda has sought Hans out for another reason—he is a childhood friend of Einar’s. An interesting dynamic takes hold as Gerda tries to sort out her relationship with Lili, while dealing with her attraction to Hans. Lili, meanwhile, seeks a means to complete her transformation to becoming a woman in body as well as spirit.
The Danish Girl is a curious piece as it is about real people who actually existed, but is loosely based on a fictional novel about these people—kind of like The Revenant. Author David Ebershoff wrote the novel, which was adapted by Lucinda Coxon. Director Tom Hooper came to the rescue, as the film had gone through a few directors before he came onboard. The film is very well-made and is an interesting and melancholy story. The biggest issue I had with the film, though, was that it felt more like Gerda’s story than Lili’s and it created a distance between Lili’s journey and the audience. If the tale had been told solely through Lili’s eyes, it may have been that much more heartbreaking. Hooper and Coxon definitely capture Lili’s confusion as she comes to the realization about herself and the actual transition, but it still felt at arm’s length. This distance may have come from the fact that the film is based on a fictional novel as opposed to what actually happened. Lili and Gerda were very much married to each other, but the events of their lives did not exactly pan out the way the film lays it out.
Both Redmayne and Vikander give amazing performances here. Redmayne already showed last year with The Theory of Everything that he is one of the greatest actors working today and he further proves it with The Danish Girl. His transformation into Lili is believable and wrenching. Vikander is having a hell of a year and The Danish Girl is just the icing on the cake. She had already shown her acting chops on Ex Machina, but she goes above and beyond here, mirroring Redmayne’s confusion and sadness. You can’t help but feel for Vikander’s Gerda as her whole life is upended by Lili’s revelation. Her recent Oscar nomination is well deserved. The rest of the cast does fine work here. Schoenaerts feels like he’s on the verge of a breakout with American audiences, as he keeps popping up here and there. Amber Heard and Ben Whishaw do well in their supporting roles and Sebastian Koch is great as the one doctor who seems capable and willing to help Lili.
Overall, The Danish Girl is carried on the strength of its lead performers. The story is touching and important, but I felt a distance from it that I wasn’t expecting. I think once we get some of these films fully from the point of view of the transgender person at the heart of the story, it will lead to greater understanding of the struggle these people go through to just be themselves.