When it comes to movies based on real events or people, it is inevitable that things will be oversimplified, different characters merged all into one composite, and the facts somehow distorted. And it’s the same with The Danish Girl, the movie based on a fictionalised account of the life of Lili Elbe.
The Danish Girl tells the story of Lili (Eddie Redmayne), who in real life was one of the first persons in the world to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Lili was born as Einar Wegener, a painter of landscapes who lives a bohemian life in Copenhagen with his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), also a painter.
Gerda gets her husband to stand in for a portrait of her friend Ulla (Amber Heard), but the act of putting on the stockings and shoes awakens something deep within Einar that changes both of their lives.
There may be no better time than now to tell this story as the cultural zeitgeist helps to bring awareness to transgendered people and trans issues. Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables) has been criticised for casting a cisgendered man in a transgendered role, but the very mainstream nature of this film also ensures that a bigger audience is likely to see it.
Redmayne gives an incredibly nuanced performance that, in my opinion, surpasses the transformation he went through in The Theory of Everything. Jittery and intense, his natural awkwardness lends itself to the portrayal of Lili as someone who is unsure of who they really are. The scene where Einar first steps out as Lili was acted superbly as Redmayne’s facial expressions cycled between joy, shyness and abject fear.
But it was Alicia Vikander’s amazing performance that took centre stage here. Gerda is by far the most well-fleshed character in the entire movie, and Vikander portrays a character who loves her husband with fierce loyalty despite the circumstances. She may have been chillingly eerie in Ex Machina (2015), but here she gives us a layered performance of a woman who is torn between desperately wanting her husband back, and letting him go to do what feels right for him.
The cinematography was also gorgeous, with an abundance of aerial shots featuring colours that mirrored those used in Einar’s paintings. It also seemed like Hooper was a bit too fond of close-ups, but it was hard to find fault with the technique when you have a wonderful actor like Redmayne in the role.
Nevertheless, the movie does have its flaws. Both Einar and Lili are ill-defined as characters, as if the audience were looking at them through an artistically blurry filter, with all the edges sanded smooth. The Danish Girl is also blatant Oscar bait; a tasteful biopic about a misunderstood character from history. And in playing a character who undergoes a tremendous physical transformation with the support of his loyal wife, Redmayne is treading familiar ground again.
However, the overall tone was was one of compassion and love. It’s a remarkably sensitive movie that got its message across without being overly preachy. For all its problems, it’s an very accessible movie for the average movie-goer, and if it prompts discussion or helps to change people’s attitudes, it would all have not been in vain.
The Danish Girl is out in cinemas now. Also, check out our list of 20 geek movies you must absolutely watch this year.