D: Tom Hooper. DP: Danny Cohen. W: Lucinda Coxon. Starring: Eddie Redmayne/Alicia Vikander/Matthias Schoenaerts/Ben Wishaw/Amber Heard/Sebastian Koch. (Based on the novel by David Ebershoff)
2015 was certainly the year of high profile transgender projects and media attention. With shows like Amazon’s Transparent and Netflix’s Orange is the New Black winning awards and the birth of Caitlyn Jenner before us on TV, transgender images are abound.
In the 2000s they were mostly relegated to the side lines as TV movies like Girl Like Me or Soldier’s Girl were, but we shouldn’t forget the 2005 film Transamerica starring Felicity Huffman. This saw a woman play the male into female part rather than the opposite, rare are the film that deal with the female to male transformation like 1999 Boys Don’t Cry. This is certainly not a new subject in cinema as the brilliant Lawrence Anyways from Canadian direct Xavier Dolan proved again in 2012, but what is new is its profile. Big budget films that are given award season roll out and (let’s hope) a greater consciousness of what these projects mean to their audience. The Danish Girl is the newest member of this tribe.
Loosely based on the lives of Danish artists Lili Elbe and Gerta Wegener, the film is set in the mid 1920s in Copenhagen where the couple have already been married for six years. You don’t need to know much else, they paint and laugh and Einar (Eddie Redmayne) begins to express his desire to put on his wife’s clothes. His wife Gerta (Alicia Vikander) dresses him up one night as Lili and slowly through the next two hours Einar is abandoned and Lili takes over. Once again so much was revealed in the trailers there is little need to say much else.
Director Tom Hooper, responsible for The King’s Speech and the atrociously long Les Misérables, is at home with beautiful Copenhagen and working with his usual DP, Danny Cohen. Cohen shot the complicated Room (as well as The Program) and allows the landscape and city to really be seen. Yet it is the sort of film where everything is a bit too pretty and too clean. A devastatingly emotional journey for the two leads is enveloped in so much gorgeous costume drama that it starts to feel unreal. As a ballet fan though, the use of the ballet space is a delight, all those tutes strung up in the air.
The emotional center of the film is Vikander’s performance. Her loyalty to her husband and love and understanding of who he turns into traps her and gives Vikander the scenes to shine. Excellent in Ex Machina and Testament of Youth, she is partnered well with Oscar winning Redmayne. He will clearly need a vacation after such physically focused performances in this and Theory of Everything. Redmayne’s tall lithe androgyny makes him a great choice and he carries Lili excellently.
Ultimately, The Danish Girl also suffers because we get so little time with couple before this transformation begins. It’s all too ‘off to the races’ and we can’t catch up. Thankfully Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts does appear as Lili’s childhood friend and gives the couple a third party to weigh in on the drama. A calming powerful presence, Schoenaerts (who was excellent in Far from the Madding Crowd) provides balance through third act. Yet by the end everything is a bit too much and The Danish Girl turns a personal journey into a beautiful cold portrait.