Regardless of however long movies can take to make, the fact that The Danish Girl is arriving at the tail-end of this year is so very timely. Exploring transgenders on film is relatively new to Hollywood. Orange is the New Black has a pioneering transgender character in actress Laverne Cox, a trans woman herself, and then there’s Caitlyn Jenner, who has been an outspoken voice in the trans community. And after last year’s physical transformation into Stephen Hawking, it’s no surprise that Eddie Redmayne nails the role as Lili Elbe, one of the first to complete a gender transformation on record.
Before she became Lili Elbe (Redmayne), she was born Einar Wegener. In early 1920s Copenhagen, Einar and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina), both working artists, are happily married and trying for a baby. After one of Gerda’s models fails to show up one day to sit for her painting, Gerda convinces Einar to do it instead. From then on, the pair begin (for fun, at least on Gerda’s part) to make appearances at a couple of social events with Einar dressed as his new alter ego, Lili.
But as Einar further explores this side of him, Gerda begins to see Einar fade with time, only to be replaced by Lili, Einar’s true inner self. Instead of shunning him, Gerda is as loyal as ever, as we see her struggling with the transition just as much as Lili. This culminates as Lili finds someone to perform the operation to physically make her a woman and to reflect who she is on the inside. But is it worth the risk?
Based on the true story of Lili Elbe, and given the fact that the events took place in the 1920s, both Lili and Gerda were remarkably far more forward-thinking than most. The production design is of very high quality and the cinematography is purposefully comparable to a painting, with its color scheme muted and autumn-like, brushed with an almost slightly washed-out look.
Eddie Redmayne steps into his role very seriously, his Einar and Lili very distinguishable from each other. Redmayne as Einar is always half-smiles away from full-fledged happiness, while his portrayal of Lili is shy, but ultimately powerful. Alicia Vikander’s emotions are poured into Gerda, a woman whose whole life is also changing and her confusion, mingled with supportive strength, is palpable in every moment the two are together. Matthias Schoenaerts’ character isn’t as developed, but he provides a solid support system for Gerda when she needs it.
But while lavish praises can be heaped upon The Danish Girl, the script by Lucinda Coxon doesn’t always provide ample or 100% development for either of the characters. Coxon, and director Tom Hooper by extension, seem more concerned with Lili’s transformation than getting inside her head or too much of her backstory. The characters feel held back, even while moving forward. But it’s to Redmayne and Vikander’s performances that we’re able to really root for the both of them throughout. Not always engaging, The Danish Girl is still able to provide some heartfelt moments even while the overall story arc could have been expanded upon.