Vikander Upstages Redmayne, Carries "The Danish Girl"
Although Tom Hooper’s film is ostensibly about Lili Elbe (nee Einar Wegener), the 1920s sex reassignment surgery pioneer (played by Redmayne), it’s Alicia Vikander (“Ex Machina”) as Elbe’s spouse Gerda whose star rises ever higher here.
Set in Copenhagen, the screenplay ducks some of the true-life details of the Wegener’s marriage (Gerda’s sexuality, for one) but gets the broad strokes right. They’re both modestly successful artists (Einar in landscapes, Gerda in portraits) with a seemingly blissful existence. But like many outwardly happy marriages, discomfiture lurks beneath the surface.
When Gerda asks her husband to stand in for an absentee model, the act of posing as a female figure unlocks something in Einar that quickly, powerfully bubbles to the surface. The character’s seemingly dormant or suppressed identification as female soon brings Lili Elbe into the world, first in the form of dress-up games between lovers and then as something unshakeable.
Lili’s first scenes at a social gathering are where Redmayne fares best, wordlessly imbuing her with the sense of both liberation and terror she must have felt. The actor’s biggest strength – his willingness to give himself away completely to a character’s physicality – mostly puts to rest questions of a cisgender man playing a trans woman. He’s all in, treating the subject matter with the deference it deserves.
But Redmayne’s commitment soon turns to overcommitment. When he infuses a scene of solitary discovery with bulk-sized acting, the performance turns so big, so over-the-top that it’s left to Danny Cohen’s beautiful photography to keep the pic’s signature moment from coming off as satire of awards-bait.
Thankfully, Vikander’s Gerda is the perfect tonic to Redmayne’s showboating. Her performance is the least ostentatious thing to ever grace a Tom Hooper film (nearly good enough to make us forgive the filmmaker for his inert “Les Miserables“). If Vikander hadn’t already delivered a star-making turn in 2015, this would be it. She’s nothing if not a screen natural, easing into time and place without the affectations of her co-star, evoking pain and confusion with body language as much as dialogue.
With Einar all but gone, Lili and Gerda are left to try to reconcile their old life with their new one, a sudden, personal sea change that will go on to become an historic one.
Lili’s decision to pursue experimental surgery that will physically turn her into a woman is written with undue expediency, but her suffering is clear as day. The inhumane treatment given by her first doctors is starkly contrasted by that of her last, and when her gender dysphoria is finally given a medical name, it feels as revelatory as it should.
But none of this would work nearly as well without Vikander (or Alexandre Desplat’s pretty score) and Hooper seems to know it. It’s easy to imagine a cut of the film in which Gerda is a mere supporting player. Instead, she’s practically given centerstage. It pays off again and again. (There’s even a line of dialogue that suggests the titular Danish girl might actually be Gerda.)
If not the primo prestige film it wants to be, “The Danish Girl” is a strong rebuttal to Hooper’s critics and an above average social issues movie. Some viewers might be annoyed by the liberties taken with the story, but arthouse audiences should find much to appreciate.
Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)
Release Date: November 27, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Tom Hooper
Screenwriter: Lucinda Coxon
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard
MPAA Rating: R (for some sexuality and full nudity)